Expungement is the legal process of destroying or removing all or part of a case's records from public view. Expungement also refers to the process of removing an adverse finding or finding of guilt through withdrawal, vacation, annulment, or set aside. The end result is the elimination of the criminal conviction from the court's records and files, and, quite often, also the lifting of some or all of the legal consequences of the adverse ruling without impacting access to those same records.
In the majority of jurisdictions, expunged records are able to be reviewed and considered by the court system in later cases. They can also be utilized by law enforcement and governmental agencies in limited instances. However, unless such criminal records are expunged, their harmful impacts on the defendant can span an entire lifetime.
The specific definition of expungement is typically set forth by state statutory law. Admittedly, the procedure can and does differ largely from one state to another.
Several general principles govern how the expungement process works in most states:
The laws governing expungement are usually put in place to achieve various public policy objectives. Those goals may include:
As a net result, the laws governing expungement must weigh public policy objectives against society's need to maintain access to criminal records.
The demand for expungement has widely increased recently as more employers and organizations are using and requiring criminal background checks for employees and personnel. What was once a minority of employers using such checks is now an established majority. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, combined with computer and internet capabilities has made criminal records more accessible and affordable to the mainstream population.