A criminal conviction comes with a laundry list of problems beyond fines and incarceration. It can prevent you from finding a job or housing for years into the future. In some cases, a criminal record can even impact your parental rights. Depending on multiple factors, you may qualify to have your criminal conviction expunged.

What is expungement?

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To have a criminal conviction expunged basically means to have it sealed from public view. In most states, expungement means that you no longer need to disclose your criminal conviction to potential employers and landlords, nor will insurers and lenders be privy to this information. If a job application asks the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” you can legally answer, “No.”

This does not mean, however, that your conviction is actually erased. It will still remain for the purpose of some searches, including those performed by law enforcement, the courts, certain licensing boards, and some government agencies. However, your charges will be effectively hidden from the public. As such, you will be able to return to a sense of normalcy, with your expunged charges having no real impact on daily life.

Am I eligible?

Not all criminal offenses are eligible for expungement, and even those that are will be affected by strict guidelines, such as behavior and waiting periods. Crimes that are not eligible for expungement vary from state to state but commonly include homicide, violent sexual offenses, sex-related crimes involving children, child endangerment crimes, kidnapping, and certain firearms offenses.

Your criminal history is also taken into account when determining if a conviction can be expunged. For example, if you have no previous criminal history and are attempting to expunge a theft charge, you will likely qualify. If, however, this is your third conviction for theft, your chances of success are limited.

Federal expungement

Expungements frequently happen at the state and local levels, but there is no constitutional right to a federal expungement. Federal courts rarely take part in expunging criminal convictions. There are some exceptions, however. The Federal First Offender Act, for example, permits expungement of federal crimes when the individual does not have a prior drug conviction and is under the age of 21.

Waiting periods

If the criminal offense for which you were convicted qualifies for expungement and you have not committed another crime since completing your sentence, you may be eligible. You cannot, however, apply to have your conviction expunged until the appropriate waiting period has passed. This varies from state to state, but is often five years for non-felony convictions and 10 years for felony convictions. These waiting periods typically begin following the conviction, payment of all fines, completion of probation, or release from prison, whichever comes last.

Special circumstances

Certain criminal offenses involve a quicker, easier expungement process. Individuals arrested for non-violent drug crimes may qualify for diversion programs. Such programs often allow for expungement upon successful completion. Juvenile offenders may also have an easier path to expungement; if the individual stays out of trouble, he or she usually has the option of expungement upon turning 18. An experienced defense lawyer can help you determine if your criminal conviction can be expunged. 

Talk to an attorney

Regardless of your situation, it is in your best interest to hire a criminal defense lawyer with experience in expungement. 

According to Summer Goldman, a criminal defense attorney with Goldman Wetzel in St. Petersburg, Florida, having an experienced attorney at your side when requesting an expungement will greatly improve your chances of success.

“We help our clients from start to finish,” Goldman says. “Our legal team will make sure that the Court has filed all of the necessary documents to obtain a certificate of eligibility to seal or expunge from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. And upon completion, we will ensure that our client's record is actually removed from the proper websites and agency files.”

The right lawyer can be the difference between a criminal record and a clean slate. Don’t attempt to go through this process alone.