Expunging Criminal Records in California

It ain’t just for kids, after all. Anyone who’s eligible can petition to expunge a criminal conviction in California. Here’s what you need to know.

Like we explained last week, the term “expungement” is a misnomer because it doesn’t erase the conviction or wipe the slate clean. But that’s still how lawyers and judges will refer to it. Technically, it’s called a dismissal under Penal Code section 1203.4 or other such section. So you’re still going to have a rap sheet, in other words.

But it will add a line item to your rap sheet that shows the case was dismissed. If you had pleaded guilty before, the court will permit you to withdraw your plea. If you were convicted at trial, the court will set aside that verdict. Either way, the court will then dismiss the case.

In most situations, that means you can legally and truthfully say that you don’t have a conviction. That can help on a job application, for example, though the rule is different for public employers like law-enforcement agencies. In all situations, you can at least say that the conviction was dismissed, because it was.

[Update: Beginning January 1, 2018, many employers will no longer be able to ask about convictions on a job application. But there’s more to it than that, as we explain here.]

Most employers aren’t even supposed to ask about convictions that have been dismissed, and they’re not supposed to rely on them in their decision-making. The exceptions include public employers like law-enforcement agencies.

Most licensing boards, on the other hand, can ask about them, and you should answer by disclosing both the conviction and the dismissal. They’re not supposed to deny a license basely solely on a conviction that has been expunged or dismissed.

You’re eligible to expunge a felony or misdemeanor if you were sentenced to probation or the county jail. If you successfully completed probation or had it terminated early then you are entitled to the dismissal. If you didn’t then you can still win if you can persuade the court of your rehabilitation. If you went to county jail on a felony then you’re eligible one or two years after the end of your sentence; it depends on whether you served a split sentence that included post-release supervision (one year) or a full sentence in jail (two years). Or, if you didn’t get probation on a misdemeanor then you’re eligible if it’s been over a year since you were sentenced, and you’ve completed that sentence and otherwise done well.

You’re not eligible if you were sentenced to state prison, unless you would go to county jail for the same offense today or the court suspended the execution of your prison sentence and put you on probation instead. You’re also not eligible for certain sex offenses involving minors, including child pornography or statutory rape if you were 21 or older and the minor was younger than sixteen.

So how do you do it? Here’s a guide from the official website of the California courts that can help you do it yourself. But you should check your own county’s rules and forms, too. Here’s the link for Orange County, for example. Or, if you can afford it, get a lawyer. He or she will navigate the process for you and help you put your best foot forward. Plus, you may not ever have to go to court yourself.

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