The difference between expunging and sealing a criminal record

by Jamison Koehler on March 27, 2019
sealed criminal records

Black’s Law Dictionary defines “expungement of record” as the “removal of a conviction (especially for a first offense) from a person’s criminal record.”  The word “expunge” suggests that the record is completely destroyed, erased, obliterated, wiped out.  By contrast, the “sealing of criminal records” is defined as “the act or practice of officially preventing access to particular records in the absence of a court order.” In other words, the records still exist. They are just not accessible to the public.

D.C. statutes dealing with criminal records tend to use the word “sealing.”  Sometimes this is the most accurate word to describe what is actually being done.  For example, a criminal record under D.C. Code § 16-803 — the most commonly used statute to seal or expunge a criminal record – is not actually destroyed.   It is simply hidden from public view, and there are certain instances in which it must still be disclosed. 

At other times, D.C. law uses the word “sealing” when what actually results would more closely resemble an expungement.  For example, although D.C. Code § 16-802 is entitled “Sealing of criminal records on grounds of actual innocence,” it restores people to the position they occupied before their arrest.  In other words, in the eyes of the law, it is as if the whole criminal case never happened.  This sounds more like expungement than the sealing of a public record.

This is also the case with respect to the “sealing” of a juvenile criminal record under § 16-2335; that is, the action is described as a “sealing” although the effect looks much more like an expungement.  Finally, D.C. Code § 25-1002 actually uses the word “expungement” to describe what happens with respect to a fake ID/misrepresentation of age record.  It is clear City Council did not want to burden young people who violate the law with a life-long criminal record.