A criminal history record can haunt you for years.
The high cost of the expungement process has led many people to wonder, “How can I get my record expunged for free?”
Whether you can get a free expungement depends on several factors.
The type of conviction, your arrest record, and many other things play a role.
Let’s look at whether you can get your record expunged for free and how to do it if you’re eligible.
What Is Expungement?
Expungement is the act of erasing a conviction or criminal charge.
The charge will no longer appear in your criminal record.
Expungement can remove one charge or clean everything off a criminal record.
An expunged criminal record has the convictions erased.
The process is a little different from record sealing.
Sealing doesn’t erase the convictions but hides court documents so that no one can see them.
Expungement doesn’t affect a criminal conviction as a pardon does.
A pardon forgives you for the offense and removes it from your record.
Expunging a conviction doesn’t reverse the decision.
It hides the fact that it occurred from the court record.
This process lets you move on with your life.
You won’t suffer negative consequences because of your criminal record.
How Do I Get My Records Expunged?
To expunge criminal records, you need to file an expungement petition.
This petition asks the court to expunge your criminal record.
Most people use a lawyer or expungement services to handle the process for them.
Each state handles the process according to its expungement law.
Some felonies aren’t eligible.
Some states expunge certain felonies only under specific circumstances.
Some people aren’t eligible to have a court record erased.
Whether you qualify depends on various circumstances.
Federal felony convictions typically aren’t eligible.
In the case of federal charges, you can only petition for a pardon instead.
If you’re eligible for expungement, you’ll need to file a petition yourself or hire a lawyer to file for you.
Which Felonies Can Be Expunged?
Before you ask, “How can I get my record expunged for free?” you need to know whether the felony or felonies on your record are eligible for expungement.
The rules vary by state, so there’s no single correct answer for everyone in the US.
For example, Florida statutes are different from those in the California penal code.
Detroit residents have to follow a different set of rules than people in Chicago.
The cities are less than five hours apart, but the criminal procedure is different.
Unfortunately, five states won’t expunge any felony conviction, no matter how minor.
These states are:
All other states expunge some felonies, though the list of eligible crimes is a short one in a few cases.
Several states won’t expunge DUI records but will consider removing other felony convictions.
The least serious felonies are usually eligible, while the most serious ones aren’t.
You can’t expunge felonies like murder, rape, or assault with a deadly weapon, for example.
Other felonies requiring a mandatory prison sentence might not be eligible, either.
Those charges vary by state.
In some cases, if your convictions don’t qualify, you may be able to have them sealed.
Each state has different rules for sealing a criminal record, too.
Rules of Eligibility
Most states have a list of eligibility requirements.
You must meet them before your record is eligible for expungement.
Some offenses that usually qualify for quick expungement include:
- Juvenile records
- A misdemeanor conviction
- A dismissed charge that still appears
- Drug-related charges like marijuana charges in states where pot is now legal
- Arrests and violations that didn’t result in convictions
Juvenile records are criminal case files for minors.
Courts usually seal these records to protect children.
The violations won’t appear on the adult’s record after age 18.
To have the records expunged after sealing, you still usually have to petition the court.
Other charges and convictions may be more difficult to remove.
The rules for doing so vary by state and their criminal procedure statutes.
In general, you must have:
- No pending charges
- Completed your prison sentence as ordered by the court
- Concluded your term with the probation department
- Met the state’s waiting period, which is often three to five years after your release
- Paid all court fees, fines, and restitution
- Avoided run-ins with law enforcement and arrests since your release
Each state has different rules.
You might be ineligible if you spent time in a state prison in California.
Other states might make you serve papers to the district attorney or state’s attorney.
Each state has a unique process and timeline.
Some states also destroy the court documents related to an expunged record.
Other states maintain the court documents but seal them so no one can find the information.
The Expungement Timeline
After you file for expungement, the decision should take two to six months.
The timeline also varies by state and court system.
You could wait up to a year for a decision if you file in a large metropolitan area with a case backlog like Chicago.
Is There a Fee for Filing for Expungement?
Filing papers in any court system requires payment of a fee.
The cost to file an expungement petition varies by location.
The cost falls between $100 and $600 in most states.
That cost isn’t what you pay for legal services, but the fee that goes to the court.
If you hire a lawyer to handle your expungement, their fee will be extra.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File a Petition for Expungement?
You don’t have to hire a lawyer to file any petition for any reason.
You can find the forms you need, learn how to fill them out and submit them, and pay the fee to file the court forms.
But the fact that you can do it yourself doesn’t mean you should.
You may have to re-file and pay another fee if you make mistakes.
Since the goal is to have your records expunged, it’s important to get it right.
Following the rules increases your chances of the court granting your petition.
An experienced expungement lawyer can help.
If you’re not sure whether you can afford a lawyer, most offer free consultations to help you decide.
You should get legal advice unless you’re experienced with court filings.
A lawyer can save you time and frustration with the expungement process.
Will I Have to Appear in Court?
Whether you’ll make a court appearance varies by state and jurisdiction.
You may have to appear before a superior court judge who will decide whether to grant your petition.
How Can I Get My Record Expunged for Free?
It’s not always possible to get your record expunged for free.
A great deal depends on your financial situation, the state, and whether you can get free legal aid.
You can probably get free legal aid if you’re on government benefits based on income like welfare.
If you can’t pay a lawyer’s fee or the filing fee, you might qualify for free expungement.
If your income is low enough, you can ask the court for a fee waiver in most states.
You’ll have to fill out the proper forms with information about your financial status.
Forms You Need for Free Expungement
Each state has its own approved forms that let you ask to have filing and court fees waived.
For example, Illinois forms for waiving fees cover court and filing costs for all civil cases.
You can get the fees waived if you get government benefits or your income falls into the poverty range.
The judge also has to decide that paying the court costs would cause hardship.
If a lawyer handles your case pro bono, they’ll file the waiver for you.
If you’re filing on your own, you’ll need to find the forms for the state where you’ll file.
You can find each state’s official government site and documents online.
Search for your state at the official US government directory.
Additional Resource: Removing Your Information From Internet Background Checks
A background check won’t show the erased convictions from an expunged criminal record.
Expungement hides the information from background checks.
Sealed records won’t show during background checks, either.
These methods are the only way to hide accurate information.
If your background checks show inaccurate information, you can remove that information.
You should notify the company or organization that ran the check and tell them it’s incorrect.
The company has to investigate and respond within 30 days.
When expungement isn’t possible, you can usually file to have records sealed instead.
Sealing will serve the same purpose of hiding a past criminal offense from the public.
If you can expunge or seal your criminal record, you’ll no longer have your past weighing you down.
With the proper legal advice and support, you may be able to expunge your record.
Why not start that process today?
Contact an expungement lawyer for a free consultation.