Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Mar 10, 2020

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California law allows expungement of certain felony and misdemeanor convictions. Generally speaking, an expungement reopens your criminal case, dismisses and sets aside the conviction, and recloses the case without a conviction. 

Though California uses the term “expungement,” this is often times misleading because the record of a criminal conviction is not actually purged from the justice system by this procedure.  In fact, the criminal conviction is dismissed and the court case record is updated to reflect the dismissal of conviction.  The updated court case file is visible to background checks and the original conviction may still have consequences even after expungement, including:

     1. Expungements can be used as “priors” and “strikes.”
     2. You cannot own or possess a firearm.
     3. Sex offenders are still bound by all applicable sex offender registration laws.  
     4. The DMV may consider the conviction for purposes of revoking or suspending driving privileges.

There are several categories of convictions that can never be expunged (erased) from your criminal record.  These include convictions that resulted in a state prison sentence (though you may qualify for a certificate of rehabilitation), as well as some sex- and traffic-related crimes. Other criminal convictions can be reduced (such as from a felony to a misdemeanor) in some situations, even though they can’t be dismissed.

Despite the limitations, having a criminal conviction dismissed carries several advantages; perhaps most prominent of which is your legal right to answer “no” to a critical question on many job and other applications, e.g., “Have you been convicted of a crime?”  Additionally, an expungement can improve your credit rating, help with housing and loan applications, and restore student loan eligibility.

However, note that this benefit does not carry over to applications for state licenses, public office, or contracting with the state lottery.  If you are directly asked in connection with state licensing, public office, or the state lottery whether you have been convicted, you will have to disclose the criminal conviction, even though it has been dismissed.

The State of California also offers a type of expungement for arrest records in cases where the arrestee has neither pled guilty nor been found guilty by the court.  The arrestee may petition the law enforcement agency, cc’ing the district attorney, to destroy its records of the arrest. The superior court may also be petitioned if the agency denies the original petition. This petition is rarely granted: in it you are required to prove that you are “factually innocent” of the crime, that is, that no reasonable cause exists to believe that you committed the offense you were arrested for.  If you meet this burden, and the state of California fails to make its case to the contrary, then the petition is granted and all arrest records are sealed.  After three years, the arrest records are destroyed.  In effect, this “Petition for Factual Innocence” leaves no trace of the arrest or court case on your California criminal record, also called your “rap sheet.”

If you are facing any of these situations and you want to maximize the chance of a successful outcome, you should hire an experienced California criminal attorney.

For more information on California criminal expungements, see the following articles:

Eligibility for Record Dismissal or Expungements in California

Process for Expunging Criminal Adult Records in California

Sealing and Destroying Adult Arrest Records in California: Factual Innocence Remedy

Sealing Juvenile Criminal Records in California

Expunging Adult Criminal Records in California

California Certificate of Rehabilitation

Do I Need an Attorney in California to File an Expungement or Petition to Seal my Criminal Records?