When someone is charged with a crime in Pennsylvania there are a limited, but growing, number of ways to remove that criminal history from their record after a period of good behavior.
The most prevalent is through a process known as expungement, where the official records of the arrest and conviction are permanently destroyed.
“Expungement historically was very, very tough to get,” Carlisle attorney Gregory Knight said. “The only way to get an expungement was to get a pardon, and that was through the board of pardons.”
Knight said receiving an expungement from the board of pardons became increasingly more difficult as the state Legislature began clamping down on what jobs people with a criminal record could hold.
He said this usually happened after a single, but extreme, crime happened and the defendant was found to be employed, but had a criminal history.
“Some legislator says, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make sure nobody with a conviction, because it turns out this guy had a conviction for whatever, so from now on you can’t do that job unless you have a clean record,’” Knight said. “That happened again and again and so all of the sudden … it just ended up flooding the board of pardons.”
Around 2010, the Legislature passed an expungement law that allows anyone with a summary conviction to have that conviction removed from their record if they have completed their punishment and have remained arrest free for at least five years, Knight said.
“The Legislature said if you go to the county in which you were convicted and file an application and assuming the (district attorney) doesn’t have any good reason for saying no, the judge can grant an expungement,” Knight said.
He said the law has cut down the work load of the board of pardons by about 20 percent.
To begin, anyone interested in having a record expunged needs to first obtain an official criminal record from the Pennsylvania State Police, Knight said.
The information can be requested online by visiting psp.pa.gov and requires a roughly $10 fee.
Information from the criminal history is required to complete the expungement form and must be attached when filing for expungement.
The official form for expungement must be filed through the county where the conviction occurred.
In Cumberland County, the form is available online through the county Clerk of Courts Office.
Knight said it is always advisable to seek legal counsel, but added the expungement form is rather self-explanatory and that most people can file it without legal representation.
The form requires information about the offense like the arresting agency, the crimes and dispositions and a reason the person seeks the expungement.
The Cumberland County Clerk of Courts Office charges a $183 fee to process expungement. That fee varies from county to county.
“It takes months, frankly, but not years, which is what the board of pardons is,” Knight said. “Usually, you get a court order granting the expungement application. If there’s objections and the court wants to, you can have a hearing on it.”
Withdrawn or dismissed
In cases where a person is arrested and charged but the case is dismissed or charges are withdrawn the information remains on the person’s criminal history and can be viewed publicly through the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System.
In Cumberland County, nearly 300 cases were withdrawn or dismissed in 2014, according to analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
Of those, roughly 100 involved defendants whose case was their first, and in many cases only, foray into the criminal justice system, according to the analysis.
Despite the charges being dropped, those arrests and charges remain on their criminal records.
Cases that are withdrawn or dismissed qualify for an expungement so long as no disposition has been reached within 18 months of the arrest and no court action is pending.
However, the burden, including the financial costs, falls on the defendant to pursue having those records removed.
There is no law in Pennsylvania that automatically removes records where criminal charges in a case were withdrawn by law enforcement or dismissed because of lack of evidence.
In 2016, Pennsylvania expanded what records could be removed from public view by allowing certain second- and third-degree misdemeanors to be sealed but not destroyed.
“It’s not an expungement by definition,” Knight said. “That conviction, if the (district attorney) doesn’t oppose it, then that conviction is sealed, so it wouldn’t show up on your criminal record.”
The process is similar to a traditional expungement, requiring the submission of an application with the Clerk of Courts and a copy of the person’s criminal history.
People convicted of a second- or third-degree misdemeanor, excluding certain offenses like sex crimes and certain instances of simple assault, may petition the court to have those records removed from public view if they have completed all punishments and remained arrest free for at least 10 years.
Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, and Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Delaware County, have introduced a bill that would expand on this legislation and grant automatic limited access to people who meet the requirements of the 2016 bill.
Senate Bill 529, known as the “Clean Slate” bill, would also automatically remove from public view cases where the person is charged but not convicted 60 days after the disposition and if all court fees are paid.
That bill recently cleared the Senate with unanimous support and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.