Expunging, vacating, and sealing your criminal record
Cleaning up your criminal history: An essential step to preserving your access to employment and housing, and the legal right to live in the United States.
What is expungement?
Many people in Washington State have a criminal record—even though charges were never filed, they were acquitted in the courtroom, or they have served their sentence and are now entitled to a clean history.
At Blair & Kim, PLLC, we help people to restore their records, rights, and reputations in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Thurston counties—and throughout Washington State. The law provides three different types of relief that apply to people in different circumstances. Records can be Expunged, Vacated, or Sealed.
The attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC are highly experienced in determining which type or types of relief are available. We work quickly, generally producing results in 30-to-60 days.
If you think your criminal record may be jeopardizing your job or causing you to be turned down for new employment; if you are being excluded from housing options; or if you are facing deportation or denial of your application for citizenship, you should call Blair & Kim, PLLC right away. We'll evaluate your situation, explain your options, and propose remedies that can improve your situation.
Follow these links to learn more about:
Expunging arrest records
Expungement is a remedy that's available to people who have been investigated and charged with a crime by a law enforcement agency. However, for a variety of reasons, the charge is never filed or the case is dismissed without a trial or further legal action. As a result, your record will contain all of the data the arresting officer put into the investigation report. Anyone searching your record via a public disclosure request can access this data.
Fortunately, the state of Washington has a statute, RCW 10.97.060, which allows you to expunge the data in your arrest report from law enforcement records. The statute applies only to records that are maintained by the law enforcement agency that did the investigation. A waiting period of two years from the date of the investigation is required. At that point, the information in your file is classified "non-conviction data," and you can expunge it. Expungement involves either writing a letter to the law enforcement agency and asking them to delete the data, or else obtaining a court order telling the agency to destroy those records.
When you come to Blair & Kim, PLLC we make an assessment of your eligibility for the remedy or expungement. We gather the necessary documents and we either write a letter or obtain the necessary court documents. Often, expungement does not require a hearing. Typically, no appearance in court will be required of you. Blair & Kim, PLLC files the paperwork and then follows up with the court and the law enforcement agency as needed. We can usually secure expungement for qualified clients within a 30-day timeframe.
Vacating a conviction
Vacating a conviction is a remedy that's available to people who have been found guilty of a crime, but have served their sentences and have lived without further convictions for a specified period of time.
In the State of Washington, records of criminal convictions are kept by the State Patrol and also reported on the federal level to the FBI. As a result, any background check will show this conviction. That can be a big handicap if, for example, you are applying for a job. You may have completed the terms of your sentence and lived an exemplary life ever since. But the record of the conviction will follow you and may scare away potential employers.
Conviction data can also be critical for people in immigration situations. Having a crime such as theft on your record is grounds for deportation; it can also disqualify you for citizenship.
The solution here is to attempt to vacate the conviction. "Vacate" means literally that your finding of guilty is removed. Whether it's a guilty plea or the verdict from your trial, you can petition the court to have that finding removed. If you are successful, the judge will say, "You have satisfied the conditions of the statute that allow you to Vacate. I'm removing the finding of guilty or the plea of guilty. I'm entering a finding of not guilty and I'm dismissing the case." And then when you go for your job application in the future, you can say legally, "I was never convicted of this crime."
The key to vacating a conviction is determining the conditions that apply to different types of crimes. If it's a misdemeanor, such as theft, you have to go three years with no new criminal law violations after you successfully complete the term of your sentence. There are some limitations: You can't vacate a DUI, and if it's a domestic violence crime you have to wait five years, not three years. If it's a felony, the waiting periods are longer—five years for a Class C felony and ten years for Class B.
The attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC have a successful track record of vacating convictions for our clients throughout Washington State. We review the type of crime involved and then determine whether you have completed the sentencing and the requisite period of time to meet the conditions. We assemble the proof needed to support the motion. Then we draft the language for the motion and send it over to the court and prosecutor's office. In most cases we get the order signed within 30 days. Generally, the process does not require you to even appear in court.
Once your guilty verdict is vacated, all of your records become non-conviction data. That means you can wait two years and move to expunge the arrest record. There's also a third step in the process, called Sealing, which we describe below.
Sealing your court docket
The third step in cleaning up your criminal history is Sealing the court records. Whenever you appear in court, a docket is created, which refers to both the physical and computer files relating to your case. Any background search of your criminal record will include a check with both the Washington State Patrol for your criminal history and with the court docket. Expunging records applies only to the records kept by the State Patrol. That's why Sealing is also necessary. Moving to seal means that the court docket—both the physical and the computer file—can be ordered closed to public viewing. That means a background check would only turn up your name and case number; no other information would be available.
Sealing is discretionary, meaning that the court has to make a judgment as to whether or not to grant your motion. In assessing your motion, the court will weigh five factors, called the Ishikawa Factors (based on a precedent-setting case referred to as "Ishikawa"):
- There has to be a serious and imminent threat to an important interest
- Anyone present in the court (usually the victim) must be given the chance to object to the Sealing
- Sealing must be the only viable way to protect the interest named
- The public's interest in the file remaining open is outweighed by the defendant's need for Sealing
- The period of time for which the sealing will be in effect must be specified. In most cases it will be permanent
The serious and imminent threat that needs to be specified in the first Ishikawa Factor is usually the loss of a job or denial of employment. It can also be an immigration issue: the treat of deportation or denial of citizenship.
In one case, Blair & Kim, PLLC helped a client who was regularly detained for questioning whenever she returned from traveling internationally. She'd had a case dismissed by the court. But her docket had not been sealed. She travelled to China frequently for business, and every time she returned to the United States, immigration officers would pull her out of line and subject her to long delays.
After Vacating and Expunging her records, we made a motion to Seal them as well. We went before the court and argued that our client's right to travel freely was threatened. Note that this was not a theoretical or potential threat. It was a fact and had already happened repeatedly. That was an important part of establishing Factor #1.
To satisfy Factor #2, we gave notice to the victim in the case. Because it was a "boyfriend/girlfriend" issue in a relationship that had ended some time ago, the person who originally pressed charges now had no objection and did not want to contest the motion to seal in court.
Addressing the other three Factors, we argued to the court that sealing the docket was the only way to protect our client from background checks every time she travelled (#3); that our client's interest in traveling freely outweighed the public's interest in knowing about a charge that had been dismissed (#4); and that the seal needed to be permanent since our client planned to continue traveling indefinitely (#5).
The court agreed and granted our motion to seal.
How Blair & Kim works to clear your criminal record
Expunge, Vacate and Seal. Those are the three steps in clearing up criminal records. In most cases, Blair & Kim, PLLC advises clients to take all three steps. We start with Vacate to rid your record of a guilty conviction. Then we ask the court to Seal your docket so court records are not accessible via background checks. And, after the two-year (or longer) waiting period is satisfied, we can help you Expunge the arrest records at the Washington State Patrol and the FBI.
Expunge, Vacate and Seal are legal remedies that effectively erase criminal justice records kept by law enforcement agencies and the courts. However, these legal remedies do not automatically impact records held in private databases. For example, a company may have done a background check on you and stored your records in its database. In an ideal world that agency's database would be kept up-to-date, reflecting changes that have taken place through our efforts to Expunge, Vacate, and Seal your records.
To provide extra insurance, in cases where we know which agency is doing a background check on you, we will contact them and provide proof of your current legal status, so that their database and reports on you will be up-to-date. We can also contact all of the larger, well-known private companies that do background searches and ask them to put your information in their files.
As a final precaution, Blair & Kim, PLLC provides a letter addressed to any employer or government agency that may have requested a background check on you. The letter explains the legal measures we have taken, and it serves as a precaution against the possibility of a record in a private database that we couldn't reach. For example, suppose we have successfully vacated your conviction, but there is no record of that in a private database. You can legally fill out an employment application stating you've never been convicted of a crime. But if the background check still shows the conviction, then the employer may think you've answered this question falsely and will not hire you. By sending out precautionary letters to prospective employers, Blair & Kim, PLLC helps clients preserve access to employment and other opportunities to which they are entitled.
What are the legal fees?
Fees vary and can range from as little as $500 to maximum of $1,500.
Multiple payment options and flexible payment plans available upon request.
Links to Statues
Expungement - RCW 10.97.060
Vacating a Misdemeanor - RCW 9.96.060
Vacating a Felony - RCW 9.94A.640
Sealing - GR 15