Criminal Law

Expunging or Sealing Juvenile Court Records

By Janet Portman, Attorney
Having your juvenile record expunged can be a great advantage when you later apply for a job, professional license, or in any other situation where having a criminal history might negatively affect you.

If you have a record from juvenile court, you might be able to clear your record by using your state’s procedures to expunge (seal, or sometimes destroy) that record. Once your record is expunged, in most situations it’s treated as if it never happened. When questioned by potential landlords, employers, some licensing agencies and others, you can legitimately say that you were never arrested or found by a judge to be a delinquent juvenile.

Expunging your record may not universally remove the consequences of having been found to be a juvenile delinquent, however. In many states, if you later commit a criminal offense, your record will be unsealed and considered for purposes of charging, and possibly when you are sentenced. Still, expunging your juvenile record is a good idea. The sections below explain the circumstances in which a juvenile record will qualify for expungement, and how you can proceed.

Does Your Juvenile Record Qualify for Expungement or Sealing?

Each state has unique rules for expunging or sealing juvenile records. The following factors typically determine whether your record can be cleared:

What is your current age? In most states, you must be an adult (18 years old) to have your record expunged. Some states automatically expunge certain juvenile records, regardless of age.

How long ago did the offense occur?. States often prevent expungement until a certain amount of time has passed since the incident occurred or the juvenile case ended. A waiting period of one, two, or five years is common.

How serious was the offense? Most states restrict the types of offenses that can be expunged. Serious juvenile offenses -- for instance, those that would be felonies if committed by an adult – are commonly off-limits.

Have you had later arrests or convictions? Most states won’t allow you to expunge your record if you had subsequent juvenile adjudications or adult criminal convictions -- or if such proceedings are pending against you.

How to Expunge Your Juvenile Records

As mentioned above, a few states automatically seal some types of juvenile records at the end of the underlying court proceedings. Sometimes this will happen after the juvenile has reached a certain age. In most states, however, you must file a request with the court, asking that your record be expunged. Normally, you’ll file your petition with the court that handled your case.

Some courts (and some prosecuting attorney offices and probation offices) provide the needed forms and instructions. Most of the time, you’ll pay a filing fee, and you may be required to notify certain people of your request to expunge. Contact the clerk’s office of the court that handled your case for details, or consult a qualified criminal law attorney in your area.

After Your Records Are Expunged or Sealed

After the court expunges your record, your record will -- for most purposes -- be treated as though it never existed. One of the greatest benefits of this is that if you are asked, in an interview or on an application, whether you have a criminal history, you can legally say no. (This assumes, of course, that you didn’t get into trouble after the records were sealed.) And if a prospective employer, college, government agency, or other agency or individual runs a criminal background check on you, your juvenile court history should not show up.

As with most things legal, however, the promise of a clean slate is not absolute, for both practical and policy reasons:

  • Nothing really goes away once it’s online. We have all learned by now that information posted online, no matter how assiduously we try to get rid of it, persists. If the events that underlay your juvenile record were reported in the news, it’s likely that the online archives of a local newspaper, radio, or television station contain mention of it. Even the court records might still be accessible to creative searchers. And if the events of your case were bandied about in social media, you can be sure they’re still there.
  • Some employers will still get to see the record. Legislators who wrote the expungement laws carved out exceptions for people who later apply to work in particularly sensitive positions, such as in law enforcement or with children or vulnerable adults.
  • The record will be unsealed if you are charged and sentenced later. The whole purpose of sealing your record is to give a youthful but reformed offender a chance to begin anew. That purpose is not served when the juvenile commits another crime. If you’re charged after sealing your record, it might be unsealed for purposes of charging (many crimes can be charged as more serious offenses when the defendant has a criminal record). If you’re convicted, your sentence might be enhanced due to your status as a repeat offender.

Questions to Ask Your Lawyer

  • If I meet the qualifications for expungement in my state, is there a chance that the prosecutor will still oppose it?
  • What can I do if an employer or landlord finds out about my expunged record by doing a Google search of my name?
  • The probation office in my state is supposed to help with expungement, but they say they’re too busy. Is there anything I can do to get them to help me?
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