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Expungement vs. a sealed record: Key differences

| Sep 30, 2020 | Criminal Law

A criminal conviction does not disappear as soon as you fulfill your debt to society. Even small run-ins with the law linger for years. One mistake while young can prevent you from getting a decent job, securing housing or being accepted into college.

How can someone clear their old criminal record and get a fresh start? Two well-known options are an expungement and a limited access order. Here are the pros and cons of each.

Expungement eligibility is narrow

Expungement is the traditional method of wiping a criminal record. Through expungement, essentially all record of a conviction – including court and administrative documentation – is destroyed. However, expungement is only possible in limited situations:

  • An underage drinking conviction (once you reach the age of 21, and have completed all related court-ordered requirements)
  • A summary offense (only after five years, during which you cannot have been arrested or prosecuted)
  • Non-conviction data (meaning charges and citations that conclude with a not guilty finding, a dismissal, a withdrawal or another non-conviction)

Few people will qualify for expungement. However, there is another option.

Sealing your record with a limited access order

In recent years, Pennsylvania has made it easier for people to seal their criminal records with something called a limited access order. This does not destroy all documentation of a criminal record. However, it means most parties won’t have access to that criminal record. That includes the general public, many private employers, landlords and schools.

The eligibility requirements are a bit complex. Generally speaking, to seal a record, you have to wait 10 years and not have any trouble with the law during that time. Certain convictions may make you ineligible, but generally, you can request to seal records related to:

  • Second- and third-degree misdemeanors
  • Certain first-degree misdemeanors
  • Second-degree simple assault

The process of requesting a limited access order and securing a sealed criminal record can be confusing. It is not just about determining if you qualify, but also convincing the court to approve such a move. If done right, however, it can help minimize the continued impact one mistake has had on other aspects of your life.