Can I have a felony or misdemeanor conviction or guilty plea expunged from my criminal record?
In order to obtain an expungement in Pennsylvania, the law must expressly allow for it, meaning a person cannot simply file an expungement petition and hope to convince a judge to allow it. It does not matter that a criminal record may be preventing a person from getting a job, being professionally licensed, or being denied an apartment lease. Obtaining an expungement is generally a two-step consideration process. Step 1 is that the person must be legally eligible to request the expungement, and it is only step 2 during which the person may appear in court at a hearing before a judge and try to convince the judge to grant the expungement. If a person is not legally eligible to receive the expungement, the district attorney oppose the expungement, and the judge will dismiss the request without even proceeding to step 2.
Step 1 is considering whether or not an expungement is possible is to check on the severity of the change and how the charge or case was resolved. It must be emphasized that there is a difference between expunging charges and expunging convictions. Many people tend to use the words interchangeably, but, for legal reasons, the terms are very different. Generally speaking, when a criminal case is resolved, the charges are either dismissed or a person pleads guilty or is convicted of some of the charges. People often assumed that dismissed or even withdrawn means that the charges are automatically removed from the government records. Regrettably, that assumption is wrong because dismissed or withdrawn charges actually remain on a person’s criminal record in Pennsylvania, so dismissed charges could appear on background searches. Such charges are legally eligible to be expunged regardless of severity of the charge. Summary, misdemeanor, and even felony dismissed or withdrawn charges are eligible to be expunged, so the requirements of step 1 is satisfied. An expungement petition would need to be drafted, filed, and then the court may schedule a hearing on the matter to consider whether or not the expungement should be granted.
When it comes to convictions or guilty pleas, a person generally cannot expunge misdemeanor or felony convictions from the records in Pennsylvania. If the conviction was for a summary offense, like Underage Drinking, Public Drunkenness, Retail Theft, or Disorderly Conduct, the law does permit expungement of such records in some situations. However, when it comes to misdemeanor or felony convictions, Pennsylvania law allows for an expungement in two limited scenarios: 1) if a person is 70 years old and has been free of arrest and prosecution for ten years following final release from confinement or court supervision; OR 2) the person has been dead for three years. Obviously, the exceptions the general rule that misdemeanor and felony convictions cannot be expunged are not very helpful or useful to most people.
Alternatives to Expungement – Pardon & Order for Limited Access
So what can be done to remove a felony or misdemeanor conviction? Some misdemeanor convictions are eligible for an Order for Limited Access, which basically means that the record would not be publicly accessible. Many states refer to this as a “sealing” of the record, but Pennsylvania calls it an Order for Limited Access. For more information about an Order for Limited Access, click here.
A person with a misdemeanor or felony conviction may be able to obtain a pardon of the conviction from the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. If a person is able to receive a pardon, then the conviction or guilty plea is set aside. From a practical standpoint, a pardon has the same effect as a dismissal of the charges. A person’s legal rights are returned. For example, a felony conviction prohibits a person from possessing a firearm. If a person receives a pardon, then the lifetime firearm prohibition is removed. Also, if a person receives a pardon, then the charges are eligible for expungement. While you would think that a pardon would remove charges from a record, it does not. A pardon only makes a person eligible to seek an expungement to have the records destroyed. A petition to expunge must be filed, considered by, and ultimately granted by a judge.