Having a criminal record can create serious barriers to elements of everyday life like finding a job or housing, or applying for public aid programs. But it’s a common issue in the United States, where an estimated 70 million to 100 million people have some form of criminal record.
But, depending on your record and the amount of time that has passed, you could be able to clear part or all of it. In New Jersey, that’s done though a process called “expungement.”
In the past few years, New Jersey has made it easier to get a record expunged, most recently, opening up an online electronic filing system to help simplify the process.
“Every few years, it felt like we were getting better in terms of eligibility — who can expunge — and expanding that net,” says Akil Roper, vice president and assistant general counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey, which provides legal aid to low-income people in the state. “What we’re seeing now is a shift of focus in making the process itself better for those who are going through it.
Still, though, filing a petition for expungement can be complicated. So, who is eligible, and how can you go about getting your record expunged? Here are the basics:
What is expungement in New Jersey?
Unlike in Pennsylvania, expunging a criminal record in New Jersey does not mean your record is destroyed. Instead, the Garden State’s process removes your record from public view for most purposes, including background checks for housing and most forms of employment. And if you have your record expunged, you can legally deny that you ever had that record, with few exceptions.
“We look at expungement as a bundle of rights,” Roper says. “Not only does it remove from public view those records, but it also gives you the ability and the right to indicate that you do not have a record, and were not ever convicted or arrested, whatever the case may be.”
Who can still access your expunged record?
There are some situations in which your record can still be used. For example, if you are involved in any criminal proceedings, your record can be used to determine things like bail, sentencing, and your eligibility for diversion programs. An expunged record can also be considered if you apply for a job in law enforcement, corrections, or with the courts, and you have to disclose your record when asked.
While an expungement means that law enforcement and the courts must keep your record private, that doesn’t apply everywhere. Agencies that aren’t affiliated with law enforcement — such as the N.J. Department of Insurance — don’t have to update their records about you.
What types of records can be expunged?
Is your record eligible to be expunged? It depends on the type of offenses on your record, how many offenses or convictions you have, and the length of time since they occurred. There are several types of offenses in New Jersey, including:
Indictable offenses, (called “felonies” in most other states). These are serious crimes that are punishable with jail sentences of six months or more. These often have “degrees,” such as first, second, third, or fourth.
Disorderly persons offenses (called “misdemeanors” in most other states). These include crimes such as simple possession or simple assault, and are punishable by less than six months of jail time.
Municipal ordinance violations, which are violations of town or city laws and typically only are punishable by a fine (for example, littering or curfew violations).
No matter what the category, many convictions and violations can be expunged after a certain period of time. Arrests that did not result in a conviction (with a few exceptions), and most juvenile records are also eligible.
What types of records can’t be expunged?
There are many serious violent and sex-related crimes that cannot be expunged from your record, including:
Kidnapping and human trafficking
Sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault
Criminal sexual contact with a minor
Creating, possessing, or distributing child pornography
Additionally, you cannot expunge:
Motor vehicle-related violations under Title 39, such as driving under the influence
Convictions for the sale or distribution of a dangerous substance, or possession with the intent to sell, unless they involve small amounts of marijuana or hashish, or a court finds “compelling circumstances” to grant an expungement.
What are the types of expungements in New Jersey?
Depending on your record, there are different types of expungements you can apply for:
In a “regular” or “traditional” expungement, you can expunge one indictable conviction and up to three disorderly persons offenses, or up to five disorderly persons offenses if you have no indictable convictions, Roper says. You can also expunge municipal ordinance violations as long as you have no indictable offenses, and two or fewer disorderly persons offenses.
Under New Jersey’s “clean slate” expungement, there is no limit on the number of indictable or disorderly persons convictions you can have expunged. Clean slate expungement is newer in New Jersey, and allows you to have your entire record expunged after 10 years. (But if your record has offenses that are can’t be expunged, you aren’t eligible.)
“Drug court expungement” is open to you if you successfully completed drug court or court-ordered rehabilitation, have never been convicted of any non-expungable crime, and haven’t been convicted of disorderly persons or indictable offenses during or since finishing your probation program. If you’re eligible, there is no limit on the number of convictions that you can expunge in this process.
New Jersey treats expungements for “crime sprees,” where there were multiple indictable convictions, slightly differently. As part of those laws, offenses that happened “within a comparatively short period of time” can be considered one conviction or offense by the court. So, Roper says, you can expunge a number of records at the same time, provided they occurred closely together.
When can I apply for my record to be expunged?
It depends on the type of record you have, and how long since your most recent conviction, fine payment, release from incarceration, or completion of probation or parole.
If your record contains indictable and disorderly persons convictions, you need to wait five years from your most recent offense or violation.
For juvenile records, that period is three years.
Municipal ordinance violations have a wait time of two years.
Most arrests that didn’t result in a conviction can be eligible for expungement immediately, but that can increase to six months if your charges were dismissed as part of a pretrial intervention or diversion programs.
Most minor marijuana-related offenses (like possession of less than one ounce of cannabis) can be expunged immediately, though that wait time can increase to three years for more serious offenses such as distribution of more than one ounce of marijuana.
Some drug offenses for young offenders under 21 can be expunged after one year.
Can I file a petition for expungement online?
New Jersey just introduced an electronic filing system — eCourts Expungement System — to make it easier to obtain your criminal record and petition for expungement.
“This new electronic filing system should create efficiencies in terms of putting the petition together,” Roper says. “It will create a petition and the paperwork that’s needed to file.”
You can file petitions for regular, clean slate, and marijuana expungements online. You have create an account on the court’s system and provide information about your case that will help look up your record. Most of the rest of the information will automatically populate, Roper says. The New Jersey Courts website provides a step-by-step guide on how to use the system.
One thing to note: M, if not all, of your record should show up automatically, but, Roper says, you need to check it carefully to make sure it’s complete, or it could delay your petition.
If you need to find your record, you can check online databases such as the Promis Gavel Criminal Records Database and the Municipal Courts Case Search, contact the attorney that handled your case, or contact the New Jersey State Police and request a copy of your record, though that requires fingerprinting.
If you do not have computer or internet access, you can still file via paper forms. However, that process can be complicated and expensive because you need to send information to law enforcement and court entities by certified mail with a return receipt. LSNJ offers an in-depth guide for filing non-electronically on their website.
Of course, if you can afford an attorney to help, that may be your best bet. But if you need to file pro se — or file yourself — LSNJ offers a number of helpful guides online and can also provide advice to low-income people through its hotline at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW.
How long does the expungement process take?
It depends. In general, Roper says, you can expect to wait months from the date you file for it to be approved. It can depend on the complexity of your record, whether your petition includes all the necessary information, and whether there are any objections.
Once you file your petition, it’s reviewed by a prosecutor who will determine whether you’re eligible and whether there are any objections. The court will often schedule a hearing for your expungement, but these are typically “nonappearance” hearings, meaning you don’t need to appear in court, Roper says.
“You could possibly file and get an order that your records have been expunged without having to go to court at all,” Roper says. “Typically, that’s the case.”
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Akil Roper, J.D., vice president and assistant general counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey.