To Seal or Expunge Your Record
It Depends On What You Qualify For
Invariably the question will arise about the differences between sealing a criminal record and expunging one. This is a legitimate question in Florida. Most people are confused about the differences (and similarities) and many cannot take the time to try and read legislation often devoid of grammatical rules.
Let’s Start By Looking At What Brought You Here
The best starting point to explain the difference between a sealing of a criminal record and expunging one is to look at your criminal arrest outcome. Since you are here you are probably looking to do this for yourself or someone close to you. This means you have the following characteristics:
- You have been arrested at least once(this includes receiving a Notice to Appear).
- You arrest appears on public records.
- You want it off of public records so you do not have to continually explain the incident.
What Happened After Your Arrest
We have to consider what the court outcome of each of your arrests were? The outcomes that can occur after an arrest are as follows:
- No Information; No Bill: This is when the state receives the arrest report and decides they are not going to file formal charges. This is equivalent to the case being dropped.
- Nolle Prosequi; Nol Pross: This is fancy Latin for when the state has filed formal charges and then decided (for a variety of reasons) to drop the charges.
- Dismissed: This usually occurs when the court is presented with a legal argument that requires the court to dismiss the charges. The court can only do this when presented with a legal argument on point. Equivilent to case being dropped.
- Found Guilty – Adjudication Withheld: This can occur after a plea of guilty or no contest or after a jury verdict of guilty. In Florida, the court can find you guilty of the charge but withhold the adjudication of guilt (meaning you are not convicted).
- Found Guilty – Adjudicated Guilty: This is when the court, after a plea or jury verdict, finds you guilty and convicts you of the crime.
You must know the outcomes of all the arrests you have had before you can know if you are eligible to have your record sealed or expunged. This is not always easy to do. For assistance please go to my FDLE History Check page. If you are confused about the difference between adjudicated guilty and adjudication withheld, go to my what is a conviction in Florida page.
When You Can Expunge A Criminal Record
You can expunge any criminal record of an arrest that resulted in a:
- No Information;
- No Bill;
- Nolle Prosequi, or;
- the court dismissed the charges.
When You Must First Seal A Criminal Record
You must first seal your record if the arrest record that you want to remove resulted in the court withhelding the adjudication of guilt. Additionally, the offense must not be one prohibited by statute (see my prohibited offenses page).
Note that if you have ever been convicted (adjudicated guilty) of any criminal offense you are not eligible to have any record sealed or expunged in Florida.
The fact that ANY conviction can make you ineligible to seal or expunge a criminal record is one reason to always have an attorney represent you for even the smallest criminal matter. The state loves to offer minimal fines during arraignments to minimize their workload on minor offenses. Most people jump on these offers not understanding that they are being convicted.
The Differences Between Expungement and Sealing
Only dropped or dismissed cases can be expunged initially. Now the tricky part is accepting that from your standpoint there are practically no differences between sealing a record or expunging a record. You receive the same benefits. The one exception is when purchasing a firearm. A person with a sealed record must disclose the arrest if asked when purchasing a firearm. People with expunged records may lawfully deny the arrest in that situation.
When It Is Expunged
When a record has been expunged the order requires that the Office of the State Attorney, the arresting agency, and the Sheriff’s Office physically destroy their actual files. This means those records are physically destroyed. The order to destroy also includes digital information (such as computer records). Identifying information such as fingerprints or DNA is excluded from this destruction.
When It Is Sealed
When a record is ordered to be sealed those same agencies do not have to destroy anything. However, they must make those records confidential and not disseminate them to anyone. The fear of legal liability usually has most of those agencies removing your record from their digital databases. Moreover, physical records of cases kept by these agencies are regularly destroyed, regardless of any court orders, due to constraints on their capacity to keep so many records.
The key feature of sealing or expunging a record is the destruction of the digital files. It is these files that get sold to private companies such as Intelius and Spokeo that, in turn, are made available to the public (for a fee). The Clerks’ digital records are removed for both a sealing and an expungement. The F.D.L.E. only has digital records. Those records are not destroyed but are removed from public access. Once sealed or expunged your record is no longer sold by either the Clerks or the F.D.L.E.
Similarities Between Sealing and Expunging A Record
There are a lot of similarities between a sealed record and an expunged record. Both give you the same benefits such as the ability to deny the arrest occured. Moreover, both a sealed record and an expunged record are no longer public records under Florida law.