Absolutely. Is it easy? Not really. If you’re really crunched for money, though, you can try to expunge your own record. Here’s what it takes:
- You have to evaluate whether your type of conviction qualifies for expungement. There are certain limitations on which convictions are eligible for expungement. (You can read them here and here.)
- You have to know your criminal history really well (including arrests, infractions, and driving violations), or pull a background check on yourself.
- You have to find the right forms and fill them out, including writing declarations and/or including any other supporting evidence that you think will help you.
- You have to serve the prosecuting attorney (most likely the district attorney, but you need to check) with a copy of the paperwork.
- You have to file the paperwork with the court and pay the filing fee.
After you do all that, it’s basically a waiting game. The court will review the paperwork, rule on your petition, and you should receive a copy of your order—either granted or denied—in the mail. If it’s granted, then you’re done. If it’s denied, you have to decide whether to keep trying by filing a motion asking the court to reconsider its ruling, or whether to hire an attorney to help you, or whether to simply give up (don’t do that!).
In some ways, the process is really simple. Filling out some paperwork and mailing it in to the court is pretty easy, at least on its face. But if it were that simple, everyone would do it themselves. Step one is finding the right forms to fill out. We’ll save you some time: here is the petition for dismissal that most counties use. Some counties use their own local forms, though, like Orange County.
Next, take a close look at the forms. If you can read and fully understand them, great! To most people, the text on the forms looks like a bunch of gibberish with references to statutes that they’re not even sure how to look up.
And if they do figure out where to find those statutes (we’ll save you some time again: here’s Penal Code §1203.4 and Penal Code §1203.4a), they have a really hard time understanding what they mean. (That’s why we spent so much time in law school. It’s basically a completely different language.)
If you can read the statutes and determine whether you’re eligible, and which boxes to check, then you’re halfway there. Now you need to determine whether to provide supporting evidence with your petition. Some expungements will be automatically granted if you meet the right conditions. For example, if you were given probation, and you never violated probation—not even once—and you paid all of the fines on time and completed your probation period, then you probably don’t need to attach any supporting evidence. If you had a slip-up, though, no matter how minor, you probably need to do more.
Let’s say you had a minor slip-up during your probation. Now you need to attach evidence in support of your petition to show the court that it would be “in the interests of justice” for the court to grant your petition. What sort of evidence would you attach?
Think about it from the judge’s perspective. What is she or he going to want to see and hear from you to feel good about granting your petition? You have to find some way to make the judge feel like you’ve learned your lesson, you’re a good person, you’re an asset to the community, and that you should be given a clean slate.
This is where storytelling comes into play. And this, honestly, is where most people struggle. It’s hard to write a good story, especially when it’s about yourself. Remember that this judge doesn’t know you, and doesn’t have a lot of time to get to know you. Judges are busy, and they have a lot of cases on their plate. If you can’t tell a compelling story within just a few pages, the judge may deny your petition and move on to the next one. You have a very short window of attention span to make the judge get to know you and like you. That’s not easy. But give it your best shot, and make sure to have someone proofread it afterward.
Once that’s done, you have the prosecuting attorney served with a copy of the petition, any supporting evidence, and a proposed order.
Finally, you file all of that paperwork, including the proof of service on the prosecuting attorney, with the court. You’ll pay a filing fee, which varies by county, but is generally in the range of $120–150. You can drive to the courthouse and file your paperwork in person, or you can hire a service to do that for you, or you can mail it in. Make sure you file it in the correct courthouse, though. Generally speaking, it will be the courthouse where your conviction was entered, although sometimes courthouses will be closed down entirely, or certain types of matters (criminal law matters, for example) will be transferred to a different courthouse.
Sounds simple, no?
Okay, I know it can be complicated. That’s why we’re here to help. Even though it sounds simple, there are a lot of little steps that need to be taken, and it can really help save you a lot of time and money by having a lawyer do it for you. The last thing you want is to spend all of this effort, pay the fees, wait the 4–8 weeks for the court to process your paperwork, and then to have your petition be denied.