Each year thousands of defendants are arrested or cited for crimes they did not commit, and thankfully a large percentage of these cases are dismissed in court. Defendants who are not fortunate enough to have their cases dismissed may still walk out of court without a permanent criminal conviction, and others may be given the opportunity to have the conviction stricken down the road. Exiting through the front door of the courthouse without a criminal conviction is only half the battle, as cases do not simply disappear upon being closed or dismissed. While it is certainly a relief to have your criminal case closed, the record of its existence could still be extremely damaging and stressful for years to some.
The question for many former defendants in the days following the closure of their cases is how to limit others from finding out about it. This includes current and prospective employers, academic institutions and professional organizations. Those who are searching for a potential better half also do not want to deal with the horror of a meticulous Google search turning up misleading negative information. Everyone (and their friends) has the tendency to pass quick judgment about a potential romantic interest, and a prior criminal case that is easily viewed online could spell disaster. So how can you prevent this from happening?
The answer to this question depends on a ton of factors including the specific outcome in court, and whether it was a state or federal case. For starters, the federal criminal justice system does not provide an avenue for a defendant to expunge his or her closed case. A defendant wrongfully charged with bank robbery in federal court will not be able to expunge the case even if it was nolle prossed prior to trial. The same goes for defendants charged with minor offenses such as petty theft or drug possession who complete community service in exchange for dismissals. All hope is not lost for federal criminal defendants though, as these cases are often more difficult for the general public to find. Unlike many state cases a federal case listed on PACER will not be visible with a simple web search and you cannot access this system without an account. Additionally some petty offense cases that are initiated via a citation may not show up in certain commercial background checks.
For county and city cases, Maryland is one of the few states that has a fairly liberal expungement process in place that is easy and cheap. While this does not make up for the fact that there are thousands of bogus citizen filed complaints that are never investigated by police, which result in someone wrongfully being charged with a crime, it is still nice to have a system in place that will ultimately produce a just result. Anyone who has their case nolle prossed, dismissed or is found not guilty will be immediately eligible to file an expungement application. Those found guilty of offenses that are no longer crimes (such as possession of marijuana less than 10 grams) are also immediately eligible. There are some exceptions including not being able to expunge one case if you currently have another open case. You also cannot expunge individual counts within one case. For example if you are charged with robbery and theft and the robbery charge is dropped but you are found guilty of theft, you cannot expunge the robbery part. The full requirements are listed on the state expungement handbook that is easily accessible online.
Defendants whose cases are not dismissed may still be able to file an expungement application, but some will have to wait. Cases placed on STET are eligible for expungement after three years, and cases resulting in a probation before judgment are eligible three years after probation ends. The rules do provide an avenue to request early expungement through the filing of a motion provided the defendant shows good cause. Good cause could include inability to find employment or the desire to seek a security clearance or enter the military. There are numerous other rules and exceptions that could make the process complicated, but our advice is to initiate the process immediately after your case is over. If you have any questions feel free to call criminal defense lawyer Benjamin Herbst at 410-207-2598.