The first thing someone needs to be aware of when thinking about expunging or sealing a vehicle related or driving related record is that in the United States, violations of vehicle or driving laws often result in two types of records— criminal records and DMV records. So the analysis on what can be sealed or expunged starts with what records exist, and who controls them.
Criminal records typically stay on a person’s record for life, unless they are sealed or expunged. DMV records, however, are typically automatically removed from a person’s driving record after time periods specified by state law. Criminal records are typically stored at the court, the state central repository for criminal records, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and they are often shared with background check companies. DMV records are typically not made available to background check companies, and are usually only stored at the DMV.
Both types of records, criminal and DMV, can have a significant negative impact on the person who has them. A person with a record can experience discrimination when applying for jobs, travelling, or even in social interaction. Both types of records can affect insurance rates on every type of insurance, from auto insurance to life insurance.
It is natural that people would want to seal or expunge a criminal or driving record when they have such widespread negative consequences. The good news is that most states allow for expungement or sealing of some criminal records. The bad news is that most states do not allow for DMV records to be sealed or expunged— they instead automatically remove those records from a person’s driving record after specified time periods.
In general, once sealed or expunged, all records of an arrest and the subsequent court case are removed from the public record. Most laws allow for the individual to legally deny ever having been arrested for or charged with the crime that has been expunged. Some jurisdictions allow for records to be expunged, which means the record is completely destroyed, and some states provide for a record sealing, which just seals the records from the public view, but does not completely destroy them.
Each state sets its own requirements that an individual must meet in order to have their criminal record expunged or sealed. The petitioner will have to complete the forms and follow all the other instructions when submitting the petition to the appropriate authority, often the county court of original jurisdiction. The petitioner may choose to hire an attorney to guide him or her through the process, or he or she can decide to represent him or herself.
One of the major ways that expungement laws differ among states is in the way that driving offenses are handled. Driving related offenses are often considered very minor, and in many instances driving violations are not even considered to be criminal offenses. Because of this, many states do not allocate resources to record clearing relief for traffic offenses; in these states driving offenses are simply ineligible to be sealed or expunged. This includes states such as New Jersey and Michigan, which do not offer the option to expunge or seal any traffic or driving offense. Sometimes, the relief is simply not provided for in the expungement law because the offenses are not included in the criminal code but rather are contained within a separate vehicle code, to which the state’s expungement law may not be applicable.
In other jurisdictions, certain driving violations are considered criminal offenses, and these offenses are graded like all other crimes, such as being classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony. These more serious driving offenses can result in the same collateral consequences as any other criminal prosecution or conviction, such as difficulties in securing employment and housing. And while some jurisdictions still do not provide for expungement or sealing, in many states, these misdemeanor or felony convictions for driving offenses are eligible to be sealed or expunged just like any other criminal record.
Examples of more serious driving offenses include “Driving Under the Influence” (DUI) or “Hit and Run” violations. These serious driving offenses are often considered criminal in nature, and therefore, in many states, assuming other eligibility criteria are met, an arrest or conviction for these offenses can be expunged or sealed by the court like any other criminal offense.
When an expungement is granted, all records on file with any court, detention or correctional facility, law enforcement agency, or criminal justice agency relating to a person's detection, apprehension, arrest, detention, trial or disposition of an offense within the criminal justice system, will be destroyed. However, for driving offenses, a former offender cannot necessarily be fully confident moving forward, because the offense will not have been removed from every place that records are maintained.
Even in jurisdictions that permit driving offenses to be sealed or expunged, a defendant is not able to completely remove all traces of the case, because a criminal record expungement or record sealing does not affect the defendant’s driving record. The expungement process is handled through the court system, and it only seals or expunges the records held by the court and other criminal justice agencies. The state DMV or equivalent state agency is generally not required to comply with an expungement or sealing order from the court.
If a criminal record or driving record is hurting you, the best thing to do is contact an attorney in the state where your record is. Make sure that attorney specializes in handling criminal and driving related records.