We get a lot of reference questions at the King County Law Library.
The refrain goes that because we aren’t practicing attorneys, we can’t offer legal advice—as librarians, we can only offer resources.
That said, some questions are very interesting & inspire me to do some research of my own, collected here in this column. Don’t construe this as legal advice!
Welcome back to another exciting edition of Ross’ Ref Q’s. As a reminder, we’re here to interrogate heady reference questions, or otherwise note unique research strategies. In the first round, we looked at avenues for suing the President — the short answer there is that you really can’t sue the President for damages for official acts, which is what most people want. That question was a little off the wall, but it’s asked somewhat frequently and it allowed for a unique look at how we tackle “getting started” questions. This month’s question, on the other hand, looks at a process found at the tail end of a court process:
How Do I Get Rid of My Criminal Record?
This is a straight forward question, but one that is complicated to answer. It is complicated because people can mean different things when saying “get rid” of their record, complicated because whichever path they have in mind isn’t always possible, and complicated because the “correct” path isn’t obvious via court-provided materials.
What does it mean to get rid of your criminal record?
I chose this general phrasing because for one, this is how the question often arrives, but it also underpins the typical nature of the question: folks have a criminal record and they want it sealed, perhaps, or vacated (often these terms are used interchangeable, but as we’ll see, they are not). Whichever way, they want it gone. Understandable.
The first step is to ask about their criminal record and ascertain what type of conviction they have. Then we’ll talk about what exactly they want done. This can hopefully be hashed out in a few sentences. Important distinctions are whether the conviction was for a felony or a misdemeanor, whether they were a minor at the time of conviction or an adult, and what they want their record to be: totally clear and empty, or to simply restrict access to case information? This last part touches on the important distinction between vacating convictions vs. sealing a record.
Learning about their criminal record up front is crucial because depending on the conviction, it’s possible that it can’t be sealed, destroyed, vacated, or much else. But before we get too far, what do all these terms mean? The first resource to which I’ll point people is Washington Courts’ guide on “Sealing and Destroying Court Records, Vacating Convictions, and Deleting Criminal History Records.” This has general definitions as well as basic steps to these processes. The downside is that this guide is vague and not actionable for a pro se library user. But, it does speak authoritatively about what’s possible, so it serves as a worthwhile jumping off point.
Let’s talk sealing.
What we can learn between these rules and the above court guide above is that sealing means preventing access to a court record, and that this cannot be accomplished for adult criminal cases that resulted in a conviction.
So, we are seemingly left sealing records that are either juvenile or civil.
If the user wants to seal juvenile court records, there exist DIY form packets and third party resources, in addition to the Washington Courts’ pattern forms. I’d usually pull these up on my monitor and encourage the user to use our computers or their smart phone to learn more.
Civil sealing comes up frequently at the law library, although this clearly diverges from this reference question prompt. In short, going this route involves first filing a motion and order to seal. There is a King County Clerk-provided Order, but strangely they have not provided a matching motion. Folks have to use the general family law motion and make it work.
But our question here is about criminal cases. Juvenile records have the potential to be sealed, but not adult records? What else can be done with adult convictions?
Let’s talk vacation.
Vacating means to set aside a conviction—if you successfully vacate a conviction you can truthfully say you were not convicted. Chapter 9.96 of the RCW deals with misdemeanors, RCW 9.94A.640 is for felonies.
What’s possible re: vacation has to do with how the conviction was classified:
If it was a misdemeanor, I point people to the Washington Law Help article.
If it was a non-violent Class B or C Felony, I similarly point them to the Washington Law Help article. Washington Courts provides an overview on this as well, but Washington Law Help displays the information in a more pleasing manner, to my eyes. There’s also the Courts bank of forms, but again, I think WLH provides a more guided experience, plus I don’t like to recommend forms if I don’t have to.
If the conviction resulted from a crime committed as a juvenile, the Washington Law Help packet mentioned in the sealing section is helpful.
Lastly, and though it’s beyond our focus here, WLH also has a Motion to Vacate packet for the civil side as well.
Expunge? And a broader view of the issue.
Whereas sealing and vacation have to do with altering or clearing legal records, expungement is the deletion of criminal records on the law enforcement side. This is handled exclusively by the Washington State Patrol- they have an FAQ and a form. From my understanding though, the only thing they will delete is non-conviction related data… which isn’t usually with what our users are concerned.
But this ties into a larger issue with these yet disjointed actions (sealing, vacating, expunging): you can’t seal records that led to a conviction, and Washington State Patrol will only delete non-conviction data… but vacation hand waves away convictions. So I’m left with the impression that if you vacate first, you can then fully seal and expunge the court and law enforcement records, because they’re not pointing to a conviction, right?
I’m not so sure. In an actual reference interview, the Washington Courts guide and the Washington Law Help articles are more than enough to get folks started, and they provide resources for next steps as well. My goal isn’t necessarily to personally educate people, but instead to provide resources (my having said this lets you mark off the center square in your Law Library bingo card), and these resources serve well.
If someone is totally lost in the process or has some barrier that is otherwise stalling them (perhaps a Class A Felony), and honestly in many other situations, it’s best to talk to an actual expert. And with this situation, there are several local groups that can guide people through this process:
- KCBA Records Project: attorneys that help vacate eligible convictions
- Civil Survival: post conviction resources
- King County Public Defense: county department that assists with juvenile record vacation
Why go it alone? I think the combination of (1) The Washington Courts guide, (2) A relevant Washington Law Help article/form packet, and (3) these agencies, most everyone can clear their record, insomuch as that is possible.