Key Difference – Expunge vs Seal
Expunging and sealing are two ways of clearing criminal records. However, it is important to note that these two actions can only be taken regarding certain offences. Records of serious offences like manslaughter, homicide, battery, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, carjacking, sexual battery, illegal use of explosives, aircraft piracy, robbery, etc. cannot be sealed or expunged. The key difference between expunge and seal stems from the access to the records: When a record is expunged, it cannot be accessed even by a court order whereas a sealed record can be unsealed by a court order.
What Does Expunge Mean?
Expunge means to remove something completely. Expunge is often used in law to refer to the expungement of records. West’s Encyclopedia of American Law defines expunge as “the act of physically destroying information—including criminal records in files, computers, or other depositories”.
When a record is expunged, the related files and records are all removed and destroyed; no one can access them even by court order. It is as if the offence never happened. The person with the expunged record can legally deny the existence of the events on the record. For example, if a person is asked on a job application whether he has ever been convicted of a criminal offence, he can legally answer ‘no’.
A person can have his records expunged in the following instances:
- No Action– After a person was arrested, the officers in charge decide not to file any charges against him or her.
- Dismissal – Even if the person is arrested and charges were filed against him, the charges were later dismissed. The dismissal of charges can be due to several reasons such as lack of evidence, issues with witnesses, participation in pre-trial intervention programs, etc.
- Acquittal by a Judge or Jury at trial– The person was found not guilty of the charges brought against him at the trial.
What Does Seal Mean?
Sealing a record means that it cannot be accessed by normal means. However, unlike in expungement, the record itself is not destroyed. A sealed record will be kept on file at both the corresponding police office and the courthouse. This record will be kept in a sealed envelope so as not be accessed by the public. But the record will be cleared from the court’s computer database.
If the person with the sealed record is applying for a job or petitioning for a loan, the relevant institutions will not be able to look into these records during a background check. He or she can also legally deny that the events on the record never existed. However, a court order can be obtained to unseal the records.
A person can seal his records if he or she entered into a plea or went to trial and the court withheld the conviction against him or her.
What is the difference between Expunge and Seal?
Records of the Offence:
Expunge: All related files and records of the offense are removed and destroyed.
Seal: Sealed record of the file is placed at the courthouse and the police; it is removed from the database.
Expunge: The record cannot be accessed even by court order.
Seal: The record can be unsealed by court order.
Expunge: A record can be expunged in case of no action, dismissal or acquittal by jury.
Seal: A record can be sealed if the adjudication is withheld.
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