It may have been years since you were arrested, but unfortunately, that record still exists in Pennsylvania state records. For those who've worked hard to move on with their lives in productive and meaningful ways, few moments are more frustrating than being inconveniently reminded of your past by having a long-forgotten conviction pop up on a background check.
If you've got a criminal history, especially if it's long in the past, you should consider pulling your record to see what's actually on it. Not only will this help you foresee potential problems with background checks, but it is also a necessary step in expunging your criminal record. Everyone makes mistakes, and those who are eligible for the expungement of their criminal record in PA should take advantage of the process.
Why You Should Request Your Criminal Records
There are several reasons why you might want to track down your Pennsylvania arrest records or criminal records. For example, if you plan to apply for a new job that requires a background check, seeing exactly what's reflected in your criminal history may give you an opportunity to anticipate questions from your potential employer. In another scenario, knowing exactly what's on your criminal record will also prove beneficial if you have minor children and you're facing any sort of custody dispute with a former spouse or partner. Still yet, those seeking to enter a lease for housing are also likely to undergo a background check. Knowing what will show up on the check will help you anticipate the likelihood your rental application will be accepted.
It's helpful to know what is on your criminal record before a background check, as this knowledge puts you in control of your future. All that said, the best thing you can do with your criminal record is to get it expunged.
Who Keeps Your Criminal Records in Pennsylvania?
Tracking down your criminal records in PA can be complicated if you've committed crimes in more than one jurisdiction. This is because each agency is required to maintain separate records.
"shall be the duty of every criminal justice agency within the Commonwealth to maintain complete and accurate criminal history record information and to report such information at such times and in such manner as required by the provisions of this chapter or other applicable statutes."
These “criminal justice agencies” include, but aren't limited to:
- County correctional institutions
- Regional correctional institutions
- State correctional institutions
- Parole and probation agencies
Notably, these records must be provided by the criminal justice agencies to the Central Repository within 90 days. This means that if you're trying to track down all of your criminal records, or you don't remember exactly where the arrest or criminal violation occurred, the Central Repository should have that information.
Occasionally, the criminal justice agencies make mistakes and fail to make a complete reporting of your criminal history to the Central Repository. This doesn't mean, however, that record of the crime has disappeared and can no longer be held against you. At any point, the oversight could be corrected and begin showing up on background checks. The best way to ensure your criminal record doesn't come back to haunt you is to seek expungement.
What Goes on Your Criminal Record?
Many people incorrectly assume that their criminal record is limited to convictions. This is not the case, and your full criminal record actually covers much more, including:
- Juvenile records
- Non-conviction proceedings
It's unfair in many ways, but the truth is, even if you were found not guilty in court, you could still have a criminal record showing that you were arrested.
How Do You Get Your Arrest Records or Criminal Records In PA?
There are a few ways to obtain your criminal history in Pennsylvania. Depending on your purposes, you may only need to search the ePatch records. If you're hoping to expunge your records, you'll need to perform a more thorough search through the Full Access and Review records request.
One of the primary means of accessing your criminal history is through ePATCH, which is the online portal to “Pennsylvania Access to Criminal History.” Anyone can run a background check of themselves or a loved one through ePATCH for a fee. These record checks aren't instantaneous, and it can take up to a month to receive the results of your request.
ePATCH is an excellent tool to use if you just want to get a feel for what's on your criminal record and where the original records are located. ePatch records are most often used by employers or landlords to perform routine background checks on individuals. The records provided don't show everything that may be on your criminal records, however, and will be limited to only convictions.
Full Access and Review:
For those seeking to expunge their criminal records, you'll need to fill out the SP 4-170 form and mail it to the Central Repository with a certified check or money order. Unlike the online check, not just anyone can request records through SP 4-170: These requests are limited to the subject of the records or their legal representative. The reason these reviews are limited is that your entire criminal history will be made available under the Full Access and Review search. This includes arrests for charges that were later dropped or juvenile delinquencies.
How to Expunge Your PA Criminal Record
Expunging your criminal record in Pennsylvania can be a tedious process, and your odds of success always improve when you hire an experienced expungement attorney.
Step 1: As already mentioned (and technically speaking), you need to fill out and send off the SP 4-170 form. It's important to follow the instructions on the form precisely and include all relevant identification information so that the process isn't delayed. The information provided when your records are returned to you will allow you to know which courts you need to contact to start the expungement process.
(An attorney can almost always submit the "ePatch" background check on your behalf, and not the "Access and Review", to allow the expungement process to proceed more expeditiously, as the "ePatch" background check can be available in a 2 - 3 weeks generally, and in some instances, immediately, as opposed to what can be 4 - 6 months for the "Access and Review".)
Step 2: Once you have a full report of your criminal history (which is often contained in ePatch, as the Access and Review is thankfully often not necessary to obtain in light of how long it takes to receive from the Pennsylvania State Police), you'll need to determine what is eligible for expungement. The nuance between what is and isn't eligible for expungement in the state of Pennsylvania can be difficult for the layperson to fully understand. It's beneficial to almost every expungement applicant to hire an attorney to help.
Step 3: You need to determine which court clerk(s) to contact in order to appropriately begin the expungement process. Each county may have a similar but slightly different process for expunging your records, and you'll need to fill out specific expungement requests for every jurisdiction in which you wish to expunge your record / every county you had a case.
(Although the following is not generally applicable for most expungement matters, it would be advised that any miscellaneous dockets ("MD" dockets) associated with the underlying criminal case be expunged as they also contain criminal case information, albeit often to a limited degree. These "MD" dockets would generally appear if your probation supervision, for example, was supervised as a courtesy by a different county from which the underlying case took place.)
Step 4: Once your Petition for Expungement is filed with the appropriate court, in most Pennsylvania counties, the District Attorney's Office who prosecuted the case would have to be served with the expungement pleadings so that respond whether they consent (agree) or object to the request. If the District Attorney's Office consents to the request, in most Pennsylvania counties, a judge will review and approve the request, consequently signing the expungement order. If the District Attorney's Office objects, however, there would be the need for a contested hearing before the applicable judge. The petitioner would need to present testimony, evidence, and argument would need to be presented as to why the request should be granted. Testimony in support of an expungement would generally come from the petitioner and also character witnesses in support of the expungement request. The District Attorney's Office would also potentially present testimony, evidence, and argument as to their reasoning why the expungement should be denied by the judge. Testimony in support of an objection could come from the crime victim, police officers, or others.
Regardless of whether the District Attorney's Office consents or objects, depending on how backlogged the courts are, the process could take a while for the matter to be reviewed by a judge, whether administratively so to speak, without the petitioner generally being required to appear, or at a contested hearing, in which the petitioner would be required to appear. Eventually, however, there will be a hearing to determine whether your criminal history should be expunged. Although many factors will be considered by the judge, ultimately, the decision as to whether an expungement will be granted will largely be made after weighing the seriousness of the offense with the safety of the general public. The judge may issue an Order for Expungement or a denial.
Step 5: Your criminal history is not expunged when the judge orders an approval for expungement, and there's still quite a bit of red tape to work through in order to complete what is a formal process. The expungement order, once signed by the judge, will generally have to be provided to the clerk of courts as the next step in the process. (In some instances, the expungement process is "stayed" (paused) for 30 days to determine if there is any appeal after an expungement order is signed by the judge.) The order subsequently would be forwarded to the applicable law enforcement, government, and court agencies who have the original case records, including the Pennsylvania State Police. The agencies will then begin the process of removing the evidence of the expungable offenses or arrests from their records. The Pennsylvania State Police will also forward the expungement order to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who will not expunge FBI records, but will instead generally limit a person's records to an indication that a person's fingerprints are on file.
The entire expungement process can take months from start to finish, and patience is important. When you work with an experienced attorney along the way, you won't have to waste time and fees on unnecessary errors that often plague those unfamiliar with how the process works. Even though the expungement process can be a lot of legwork, it's important to remember that when successful, you can move forward with your life without the dark cloud of your past mistakes hanging over you.
Determining Your PA Expungement Eligibility
Expungement is primarily for low-level convictions or arrests that didn't result in a conviction. Those convicted of Summary Offenses may have their records expunged so long as five years have elapsed since the disposition of their last case. In some cases, a person will have a criminal record related to drug or alcohol offenses. Sometimes these cases don't result in a conviction because the defendant completes an Accelerative Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program in lieu of conviction. ARD expungements are often successful.
Certain types of crimes are not eligible for expungement, and they include crimes of a more violent or serious nature. The types of crimes that won't be eligible for expungement include rape, murder, arson, and other such convictions.
While some eligibility requirements may seem fairly straightforward, it's important to know that the law is always changing. For example, a new PA expungement law went into effect that provides automatic expungement for individuals who received a full acquittal, even if they still owed the court fines or fees. The bottom line is: It's always best to speak to an attorney to determine your expungement eligibility. Doing so ensures a more efficient and effective process, and even when expungement isn't on the table for you, you may still have options through record sealing that your attorney can advise you on.
The Benefits of Expunging Your Criminal Record in Pennsylvania
When your criminal history is expunged, it means that it is essentially unviewable. While expungement is not the same as a pardon and does not mean that you have been “cleared” of all wrongdoing, it does mean that for purposes of background checks, your past mistakes can't be held against you. There are exceptions and limitations, of course. For example, if the FBI wants to run a background check on you before offering you a job, they will certainly be able to access it. In most cases, though, a successful expungement means you no longer have to toss and turn at night wondering if you're going to get the lease on the new apartment or land that career-changing job.
Background checks aren't just for jobs and residential leases. Those who want to apply to college or professional schools must often pass a background check before they're offered admission. It's frustrating to be held back on important milestones that could change your entire future for the better because of an error in judgment you made when you were younger. The state of Pennsylvania increasingly understands that those who've demonstrated a willingness to build better lives for themselves and their communities deserve the opportunities expungement offers them.
How a PA Expungement Attorney Can Help
At first glance, the expungement process may seem fairly straightforward. You obtain your records, file the Petition for Expungement, and then notify the applicable criminal justice agencies that the court has approved your expungement request so they can start the process of expunging your records. In a best-case scenario, that's how the process would work. As most can guess, however, bureaucratic formalities and clerical errors can quickly frustrate matters. In addition to paperwork issues, you're likely to run into confusion over exactly what is eligible for expungement. Still yet, you could get all the way to the expungement hearing before the judge and find that an argument against your expungement is completely unjust.
Any number of events can go wrong in the process of seeking the expungement of your PA criminal history. An experienced expungement attorney's job is to see these problems coming and strategize around them to ensure you don't waste time or money in the ordeal. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped countless clients expunge their criminal records across the state of Pennsylvania, and he will work tirelessly to help you do the same. To learn how the Lento Law Firm can help you expunge your records, call 888-535-3686 today.