The purpose of expungement laws is to clear the records of a criminal conviction. In most jurisdictions, rather than actually being a process to erase the event of the conviction altogether, an expungement has the records sealed. That makes the records unavailable to persons searching for records of criminal arrests, proceedings and convictions. The rules for what records can be expunged and how to obtain such relief vary widely by jurisdiction. In all jurisdictions, however, the process of expungement is governed by statutory law.
The process of expunging a criminal record is not part of the original criminal case in which the person seeking expungement was convicted. Rather, expungement laws create a separate civil action in which that person seeks to have the records sealed or expunged. Courts typically grant an expungement only to a plaintiff who proves that he or she is eligible of receiving that relief. Eligibility varies widely from one jurisdiction to another, but one requirement generally is the passage of a significant amount of time without any further criminal proceedings against the plaintiff.
In some jurisdictions, any records that are on file within any court, prison or law enforcement agency and that concern the plaintiff's apprehension, arrest, detention, trial or the result of that trial can be expunged. Furthermore, in some jurisdictions, these records are no longer available to anyone for any purpose. In other places, though, the records might still be available to certain persons. These persons include law enforcement officers, sentencing judges in later offenses and corrections facilities to which the person might be sentenced because of other convictions.
A common purpose for expungement laws is to correct records of criminal proceedings. The plaintiff might have been arrested and even convicted of a crime, which the records would reveal. If the plaintiff's conviction later is overturned on appeal, he or she might seek to have the record expunged. This will correct the false impression that he or she had a valid criminal conviction.
Most jurisdictions also have specific expungement laws that apply to juvenile criminal records. These jurisdictions allow — or in some cases require — the expungement of juvenile criminal records after the former offender reaches a certain age. In some jurisdictions, these records are destroyed, and in others they are sealed. The idea behind these expungement laws is to allow the former juvenile offender to enter adult life with a clean record, protected from the harmful effects of having a criminal record.