Do I Need an Attorney to Expunge or Seal My Criminal Record?
For many past offenders who are looking to turn their life around, expunging or sealing their record is an important step towards moving past old mistakes. Through doing so, most people hope to apply confidently for higher paying jobs, colleges, housing, and federal resources. A black mark on your permanent record can close many doors. The hope is that through the process of expungement or sealing, those doors will be opened again.
The unfortunate truth is that many parties have access to your criminal records. The process of obscuring past offenses from the general public can be somewhat confusing, and many of those who undertake it ask the same question: “Do I need an attorney for this?”
Technically speaking, the answer is no. You are not legally required to have an attorney to expunge or seal your record. However, the process of sealing or expunging a record is a lengthy and confusing one. A lawyer can help guide you through the process, saving you headaches while ensuring that you get your record clean as soon as possible.
Clearing your past record is a complex technical legal process. Small mistakes on court documents or other paperwork can delay you weeks or even months—time you may not have when applying for a job, for college, or benefits. Contacting and consulting with a lawyer is often free, and an attorney with a strong background in expunging or sealing criminal records will likely be able to provide an estimate on the cost of the whole process.
Expungement vs. Sealing
“Record sealing” and “record expungement” are two terms that are often used interchangeably by lay people. While the two often have similar results, there are some important differences between the processes.
When you expunge a record, it means that the record is either destroyed or returned to you. The clerk’s office erases your name from the docket system, and impounds the court file. After this happens, no record of your arrest will be available to the general public.
Sealing a record does not involve destroying your record. Instead, you record will be made inaccessible to most of the general public, and can only be accessed by a court order. Prosecutors and law enforcement will still be able to access it.
Expungement is a possibility only if every offense on the record qualifies. In other words, if you have three crimes on your record, and only two have the qualities that qualify to be expunged, then none of your record can be expunged.
Sealing, however, can occur on a case by case basis. So even if you have a criminal record that only partially qualifies for sealing, you can still have specific past criminal offenses sealed.
What Can and Can’t Be Expunged?
Illinois places a few restrictions on offenses that can and cannot be removed from a personal record. In general, convictions do not qualify for expungement. Expunging is a service only available to individuals who were arrested but not convicted.
Under Illinois law, the following case results are not per se convictions and are therefore able to be expunged: Supervision, Nolle Prosequi (or “not prosecuted”, also “NP”) , Stricken Off with Leave to Reinstate (“SOL”), Finding of No Probable Cause (“FNPC”), Dismissed, Not Guilty, or successful completion of first offender drug probation or TASC probation.
But if you were convicted of a criminal offense—i.e. a misdemeanor, certain felonies, or municipal order violations—you still may qualify to have your record completely or partially sealed. For most private background checks, this is effectively the same as removing the crime entirely. The government may still be able access your past records, as will prosecutors in the event of a future crime, but others will not.
Unfortunately, most felonies do not qualify for sealing. Recent legislation has allowed for some minor (Class 3 and 4), non-violent felonies to be able to be sealed. A record sealing attorney will be able to tell you for certain whether your specific situation qualifies.
Certain misdemeanors do not qualify for sealing. DUIs, for example, cannot be sealed. Violent crimes and sex crimes, even if they are misdemeanor charges, do not qualify for sealing either. To qualify for sealing, general conditions often need to be met. For example, for misdemeanor offenders, it is possible to qualify for sealing if you were sentenced to supervision and have not been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor charge in three years. Again, each situation is unique and legal consultation can quickly determine whether you qualify for expungement or sealing.
Beginning the Process of Sealing or Expunging a Criminal Record
The process of sealing and expunging processes can vary from situation to situation, but most individuals can expect the process to take a few months. In Chicago, the process can take up to a year. The process is lengthy simply because of the sheer amount of government bodies involved. Therefore, you should begin the process as soon as possible instead of waiting until you are applying for a new job.
Prospective sealers or expungers will need to gather all the necessary documents to determine whether they qualify. Perhaps the most important document you will need is a copy of your criminal record. You can obtain this from the police station that arrested you. The police will fingerprint you and print out a copy of your file. If you were arrested in Chicago, the local police have a step by step guide to obtaining a copy of your record online.
Your record will likely provide information necessary to your attorney, including:
- Date of arrest
- Law enforcement agency that arrested you
- Date that your case or sentence was completed
If you would like more information or counsel on expunging and sealing your record, an experienced Chicago defense attorney can be an invaluable resource. Don’t wait to turn your life around—contact us immediately.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and domestic violence to retail theft-related crimes, Murder, and drug crimes.