Motions to Seal Vs. Motions To Expunge: What’s The Difference?

Because criminal records are public records, those with prior convictions need to know that there are certain circumstances which may qualify them to get their records “wiped.” These vessels by which one’s records can be cleaned vary depending on the type of crime and state law involved.


Expungements are defined as the legal process of cleaning up one’s criminal record.  They are a good option to put your prior conviction behind, as it involves the court reopening your case, withdrawing your plea or guilty verdict, dismissing the charges, and re-closing the case without a conviction.  Legally speaking, a successful motion for expungement has the effect of dismissing a prior criminal conviction, and you can therefore claim in future job interviews, housing applications, etc. that you do not have a conviction on your record.  California Penal Code Section 1203.4 authorizes the most common kind of expungement relief that exists in California (ie. cases in which probation was part of the sentence, cases in which there was no probation, felonies in which you only served time in county jail, and cases where a felony conviction was reduced down to a conviction).  In order for an expungement to take place, your lawyer will have to file a formal document in court requesting that they take a specific action (the expungement motion). This motion must be filed at the court where you received your sentencing and given to the prosecutor that handled your case, and must claim in good faith that you are now living an upright and honest life.

However, it is important to know that a record expungement does not seal your record, and it does not erase your record, so the prior conviction is still visible. The case record itself will still exist, except the outcome of the case in will no longer be your plea/conviction, but instead dismissed in the “interests of justice.”  There are also certain exceptions set forth in Sections 1203.4, 1203.4a, and 1203.41 that prohibit expungement of certain crimes (ie. sexual offenses against minors).

Sealing of Criminal Record

A motion to seal a record in California can be generally defined as a formal request to the court to prevent records related to a specific arrest from being available to the general public.  The sealing of records differs from expungements in that the records can be sealed and destroyed.  Legally speaking, a successful motion to seal a record has the effect of making it as if you were never arrested, and you can therefore claim that you do not have a criminal records/arrest (versus you don’t have a conviction on record).  California Penal Code Sections 833-851.90 governs the process and eligibility of the sealing of records in the state.

It is important to note however, a motion to seal and destroy arrest records will not apply to your entire criminal record.  Rather, a separate motion must be made and granted to each specific arrest you wish to contest.  The process to seal records takes 90 days, and the option only applies to those who were arrested but never convicted.

Contact our Law Offices to Speak to a Lawyer about Your Options

If you would like a seasoned criminal lawyer to answer any questions related to your expungement or record sealing matter(s), please call our law firm and ask for a free consultation with San Diego attorney David M. Boertje. We are here to help you move on with your life.

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