A criminal record can have negative consequences long after your court process is over, even if you were not convicted. A criminal record can limit your employment, housing options, educational opportunities, and professional licensing. Many schools prohibit parents with criminal records from volunteering at their child’s school. But there is something you can do to mitigate these consequences, by acting to seal or expunge your criminal record. Here’s what you need to know.

How a Criminal Record Is Created

If you are arraigned on a criminal charge in Massachusetts, your status will immediately be recorded in a CORI (“Criminal Offender Record Information”). Even if the charge is dismissed, the entry in your CORI remains. Conversely, Massachusetts law allows for certain records to be sealed or expunged even if the result was a conviction.

Recently, however, a defendant’s right to privacy has been expanded. In a 2023 ruling, Commonwealth v. JF, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court strengthened defendants’ abilities to seal their records. When a court or jury finds a defendant not guilty, the state’s highest court held that MGL c.276, § 100C requires their records to be sealed. Prior to this ruling, individuals who were acquitted were still required to petition the court to seal a record.

What Does It Mean to Seal a Criminal Record?

Sealing is a legal process that hides your criminal court appearances and records from public view. Although the records still exist, unauthorized persons cannot see them. Only certain designated categories of individuals, such as police officers and court officials, can view your sealed records.

If you are acquitted, your criminal record will automatically be sealed under the new SJC ruling. For any other outcome, there are two ways to seal criminal records in Massachusetts: administrative and discretionary.

Many criminal convictions may be sealed administratively. If you have been convicted of a crime, you may seal your criminal record by submitting a petition to the Commissioner of Probation, pursuant to MGL c.276, § 100A. You are eligible to have your record sealed three years after a misdemeanor conviction or at the end of the sentence served for that conviction; seven years after a felony conviction or at the end of the sentence served for that conviction; or fifteen years after a sex offense or at the end of the sentence served for that conviction—IF you have not committed any new crimes during that period.

The probation department will mail you a decision letter indicating whether the charges have been sealed and the date to resubmit a petition if any charges are not eligible. Some charges, such as a firearm offense, can never be sealed. Juvenile charges and adult convictions can only be sealed administratively.

What Is the Court Process for Sealing Records?

If you have not been convicted of a crime and your case ended with a dismissal or was continued without a finding, there is no waiting period to have your record sealed. Nonetheless, you still must file a petition requesting that a court seal the record. Judges are authorized to use their discretion to seal adult non-convictions after a hearing in court. In your petition to seal the record and in oral argument, you or your attorney must convince a judge that the substantial and specific harm to you if your criminal record is not sealed outweighs the public’s interest in having your record remain public.

Because the courts have held that the public has an important and substantial interest in knowing about criminal records, you must show that you will suffer specific harms. It’s not enough to state in general terms that having a criminal record is damaging to you. At the hearing, the judge will want to know about you, what you have done since the criminal charges, what your future plans are, and how having a criminal record hinders those plans. Some of the many things the court can consider:

  • qualifications for a prospective job coupled with a genuine desire to work in a field where a CORI check places you at risk of rejection;
  • disadvantages in seeking housing;
  • inability to volunteer or participate in community activities;
  • potential for being bypassed for promotions or raises because of your record;
  • evidence of rehabilitation.

How Does Expungement Differ from Sealing a Criminal Record?

While sealing a criminal record removes it from public view, “expungement” eradicates any public record of a criminal act. Electronic records are deleted and documents are shredded. Given that records are destroyed, state law MGL ch. 276, § 100E limits expungement to a narrow set of circumstances, whereas sealing is simpler and available for a wider range of situations.

Only two categories of criminal records can be expunged:

Under 21: If (a) the person was under 21 when the alleged criminal behavior occurred, regardless of whether the case was charged in the juvenile or adult court AND (b) the person has had no further juvenile or criminal court cases, the case may be eligible for expungement. If the charge is a felony, then seven years must have passed since the later of either disposition or release from incarceration. If the charge is a misdemeanor, then it cannot be expunged until three years after disposition or release from incarceration (whichever happened later). Many offenses are not eligible for expungement, such as robbery, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault and battery on a family member, firearm violations, and restraining order violations.

Section 100K Expungement: Juvenile or adult cases are eligible for expungement under any of the following conditions:

  • the accused person was innocent and was misidentified;
  • the offense was later decriminalized
  • the case resulted from mistakes by police or others; OR
  • there were other miscarriages of justice as specified in Section 100K.

The most common qualifying basis under this section is that the offense is no longer a crime (such as marijuana possession of less than 1 ounce). Another qualifying basis is that the accused was charged by mistake, when someone fraudulently used the accused’s name when he or she was arrested. Another basis for expungement is demonstrable error by law enforcement or expert witnesses. That occurred in recent years when thousands of drug charges and/or convictions involved the disgraced drug lab chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonya Farak. Errors by court personnel also may be grounds for an expungement.

Please Note: Even if a record is eligible for expungement, a judge must find that it is “in the best interests of justice” to expunge the record. In reaching this conclusion, the judge will review your petition documents and may require a hearing as well. You only have one opportunity to petition for expungement. If denied, you may not try again at a later time.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

If I get my CORI sealed, will people know I have a sealed record? No. When a CORI check is conducted after a record is sealed, CORI will report that there is “no record” found.

What should I say in response to inquiries about my prior record after sealing?  You are legally permitted to, and should, respond by saying you have no record. This applies whether you are seeking employment, a professional license, or housing.

Who can see my record after it’s sealed?  Law enforcement agencies, courts, probation officers, social workers investigating abuse, and certain “appointing authorities” will still be able to see your sealed cases. As a result, if, for example, a police officer pulls you over and asks about your prior record, you should either not answer (they generally have no right to ask) or, if you must answer, answer truthfully. Additionally, be aware that employers offering employment in positions of special trust, such as childcare, will have access to sealed records.

What records should I keep? Consider obtaining certified copies of your criminal court record before sealing or expungement, because you never know what will happen or how the law might change. Store them in a safe place. You should do this before sealing or expungement. It’s better to have copies and not need them than the other way around.

Are there any reasons why I should NOT have my record sealed or expunged? As a general rule, sealing or expungement is a terrible idea for non-citizens. There is a myth that sealing prevents immigration officials from “seeing” your record and using it as a means to deport you or deny you important immigration benefits. That’s simply not true. Immigration personnel have law-enforcement and court-level access to sealed charges, so sealing these records will provide no protection. Even worse, since sealing and expungement reduces or eliminates access to your court records, you may find yourself unable to produce valid records of your court appearances, which is your responsibility to prove.

The perpetuation of this myth also leads non-citizens to incorrectly state they have “no record” on their immigration applications. This is a huge mistake that can create bigger problems than the criminal record itself. The fact that your case may be sealed does not mean that it did not occur. Immigration personnel will likely view this circumstance as a false statement, which constitutes independent grounds not only to deny immigration benefits but also to seek deportation.

The same is true for those seeking jobs in law enforcement or other appointed positions. Sealing or expungement may bar your access to information that you will need in order to seek those positions.

Sealing or expunging your criminal record involves knowledge of the law and how it applies to your personal circumstances. We can advise you on whether your criminal offenses qualify for either form of relief, assist you in filling out forms correctly, and submit necessary documents on your behalf to the appropriate agency, as well as provide additional legal counsel and representation. We will work with you, your school, your employer, your family, and any others to prepare and present the necessary information to the court to show that you are facing specific consequences because of your criminal record.

Please contact us if you wish to discuss sealing or expunging a record to protect your future.