Arguably, one of the worst consequences of a criminal conviction is enduring the stigma of having a criminal record even after a sentence has been served. A criminal conviction can impose a heavy burden on one’s life, affecting things such as the ability to gain employment, secure housing, see one’s children, and in some cases, hurt one’s immigration status.
Fortunately, New Jersey’s state law provides a process for effectively erasing the stain of a criminal conviction from one’s record. This process is known as “expungement.” While New Jersey’s comprehensive system of expungement laws can be incredibly difficult to navigate, those seeking an expungement don’t have to go it alone. With the assistance of a knowledgeable attorney, it’s possible to successfully rid oneself of the residual burden of a criminal record through New Jersey’s expungement process.
What Is Expungement?
NJ Rev Stat § 2C:52-1 (2019) defines expungement as:
Put more simply, expungement is a process by which one can have certain criminal convictions erased. As §2C:52-27 puts it, the effect of an order of expungement is to make it as if the arrest, conviction, and any related proceedings did not happen. The paper trail is destroyed, and all that is expunged is forgotten, except for under limited circumstances, such as when the court is trying to sentence one for a later criminal offense.
What Is the Process for Getting a Conviction Expunged?
The process for having a criminal conviction expunged in New Jersey necessarily involves the courts. New Jersey provides the choice of two types of expungement processes:
- Paper filing
- Electronic filing (e-filing)
An important disclaimer is that any mistakes made before your hearing in either process will cause the petition for expungement to be rejected, which can delay the process by six to eight months. For this reason and more, it is not recommended that you try to file for an expungement without the guidance of a qualified attorney.
Step 1. Determine Eligibility for an Expungement
A preliminary step for anyone seeking an expungement is to determine whether they are legally eligible to begin with. There is no guarantee that one will qualify for an expungement. New Jersey’s expungement laws place many complex restrictions on eligibility, centering around things such as the type of conviction, the offense committed, and the time that has elapsed since one has completed their sentence. If you are not eligible, you technically may still move forward with requesting an expungement, but it will almost certainly be denied.
Step 2. Obtain a Copy of Your Criminal Record
Once you are sure of your eligibility for expungement, you will need to obtain a copy of your criminal record. This information will be needed in later steps to prepare the necessary paperwork. Sometimes, you may need a copy of your criminal record to determine your eligibility in the first place. In this sense, this step is somewhat interchangeable with “step 1,” as your eligibility can depend, in part, on the precise information contained in your criminal record.
Many attorneys have access to a court database (see “E-filing”, below) which may list the offenses you were convicted of. Absent that, to obtain a copy of your criminal record in New Jersey, you will need to fill out a form with the New Jersey State Police and follow their procedures for being fingerprinted. It is important to note that depending on the nature of your criminal history, you may require information regarding past criminal convictions in another state or jurisdiction. To obtain these records, you will have to follow the procedures in the relevant state or jurisdiction. For ease of reference, the process in New York, similar to that in New Jersey, involves submitting an electronic request with the appropriate New York agency and getting fingerprinted.
Step 3. Prepare Your Petition for Expungement
Once you have confirmed your eligibility and have in hand the necessary information, you are ready to prepare your petition for expungement. This petition is basically a series of forms demonstrating what you want expunged and how you are eligible. The petition will include some version of the following forms:
- Petition for Expungement: The application to the court requesting that the court expunge your record.
- Order for Hearing: The document the court will use to schedule a hearing of your case.
- Expungement Order: The document to be signed by the judge if your Petition for Expungement is granted.
- Cover Letter – For Filing: The form letter to be sent to the court when filing your Petition for Expungement, Order for Hearing, and proposed Expungement Order.
- Cover Letter – Notice of Hearing: The form letter to be sent when giving notice of the hearing.
- Proof of Notice: The document to be filed with the court after notice is given.
- Cover Letter – Notice Expungement Granted: The form letter to be sent when giving notice that the expungement was granted.
Step 4. File and Serve Your Petition for Expungement
Once you have drafted your petition for expungement, you must file it with the appropriate court and “serve” the copies of the filed documents with the appropriate governmental agencies that were involved in your case. “Serving” legal documents is when you distribute copies of legal documents, usually those filed with the court, to people and entities that need to be notified of the legal action because they were or are involved in some significant way. Here, the relevant governmental entities are going to be those with records of your arrest and conviction that need to be destroyed in the event that your petition is granted.
Step 5. Expungement Hearing
Upon filing your petition for expungement, the court will schedule an expungement hearing. At this hearing, the judge will decide whether to grant or deny your requested expungement. Ordinarily, if you have correctly determined your eligibility for expungement and have filled out the necessary forms accurately, the judge will grant your request. In this case, the hearing truthfully ends up being a formality. However, there are at least two ways in which your petition can be put into question at this hearing. One way is if the prosecutor objects to the expungement. They will usually object if they believe you are not eligible. If this happens, you will need to convince the judge that you are eligible by presenting appropriate legal arguments. Another path to denial at this hearing is if the judge recognizes an issue with your eligibility. Again, you will be required to convince the judge of your eligibility.
Step 6. Distribute Copies of Signed Expungement Order
If the judge grants your petition for expungement, they will sign an order declaring the relevant arrests and convictions to not have occurred and ordering the relevant government entities to get rid of the records pertaining to these arrests and convictions. Naturally, you will be required to distribute copies of the signed expungement order to the relevant government agencies.
Electronic Filing (e-filing)
As a convenient and more widely accessible alternative to paper filing, New Jersey offers an electronic filing option for expungements. E-filing involves inputting your information into the system and the system generating the required forms filled out with your information. The steps are as follows:
Step 1. Determine Eligibility for an Expungement
Your first step is to determine your eligibility for expungement. New Jersey’s e-filing system does not determine or advise on expungement eligibility. The system will generate the appropriate forms based on the information inputted without consideration of whether the user is eligible to begin with. If the prosecutor determines you are indeed not eligible for expungement, they will object to your petition, and the court will likely deny your request for expungement, placing you back at square one. This will probably happen only after you have gone through the process of filing and attending a hearing. That’s why it’s important to determine your eligibility before filing to avoid wasted time and money.
Step 2. Gather Relevant Information
In stark contrast to the paper filing process, which requires you to obtain a copy of your criminal record yourself, the e-filing system will use whatever case number you input to pull the relevant criminal records. One thing to be wary of is that these records may not be complete. The system seems to acknowledge that it may not capture all information that could be relevant, such as out-of-state convictions, and might even be somewhat inaccurate at capturing criminal records from New Jersey.
To compensate, it gives users the opportunity to input additional relevant information. It is therefore to your advantage to independently gather all the relevant information, if possible. To be clear, the e-filing system is not generally inaccurate. The challenge is simply that it is not designed to capture certain information, and, like any electronic system, it is capable of error.
Step 3. Complete E-filing
To use the e-filing system, either you or your attorney will be prompted to input the relevant information. The system will then generate the necessary forms, filled in using the information inputted. Once the user confirms the forms look correct, the forms will be electronically submitted to the court. A huge benefit of e-filing over paper filing is that the e-filing system will distribute electronic copies of the filed forms to the relevant government entities, rather than requiring you to make physical copies and distribute them by physical mailing.
Step 4. Expungement Hearing
As with paper filing, once you have e-filed your petition for expungement, the court will schedule an expungement hearing where the judge will either grant or deny your petition. The prosecutor can object to your petition or the judge can deny your petition on the basis of your ineligibility. If the judge grants your petition, a copy of the signed order will automatically be electronically distributed to the relevant government entities.
Do You Need an Attorney?
A big question for those seeking an expungement, particularly after learning of the simplified e-filing procedures, is whether an attorney is needed to successfully navigate the expungement process. The answer is this: Though you technically do not have to be represented by an attorney to have your criminal record expunged, it is greatly to your advantage to do so.
While the steps for getting a conviction expunged have been simplified in this article for ease of understanding, asking for an expungement is still, by and large, a complicated legal process that proves uncertain for non-lawyers that attempt to go it alone. Despite the fact that the e-filing process simplifies things significantly, there are still at least three ways in which the expungement process can go wrong without the help of a capable attorney.
Challenge #1: Eligibility
The main hurdle you must clear in the expungement process is being legally eligible. New Jersey’s expungement statutes span approximately 40 code sections, which lay out a complicated set of expungement eligibility requirements that consider things such as type of conviction, number of convictions, and whether and when one’s sentence has been completed. To complicate things further, the statute is full of exceptions. And while the e-filing process eliminates many procedural hurdles, the fact remains that you are on your own as far as figuring out whether you are eligible for an expungement to begin with. Filing when you are ineligible will almost certainly result in your petition being denied, as well as time and money wasted. An attorney with experience handling expungements can help you determine your eligibility at the outset, which goes a long way towards simplifying the process.
Challenge #2: Accurately Completing Forms
A second hurdle is accurately completing the various required forms. Even with the availability of resources promoting a do-it-yourself approach to legal paperwork, the forms can be complicated. This is especially true of the paper filing route, which has the added stress of identifying and serving the appropriate government entities. Even e-filing presents challenges in this regard. The electronically generated forms are only as good and accurate as the information you input into the system. There is no guarantee with e-filing that your petition will present enough information to lead the court to grant your expungement. Again, an attorney can prevent any such problems. They can apply their knowledge of what is required of a successful petition to ensure the information submitted to the court, whether by paper filing or by e-filing, is enough to reflect that eligibility is met and an order of expungement should be granted.
Challenge #3: The Hearing
A final hurdle that must be cleared is successfully navigating the expungement hearing. If your paperwork is correct and you are indeed eligible, then the hearing should be nothing more than a formality. However, this is not guaranteed. If the prosecutor objects to your petition or the court otherwise takes issue with your request, you will need to present compelling legal arguments to advocate for the granting of your petition over any objections. This, of course, calls for an experienced attorney with extensive knowledge of the expungement laws and significant practice persuading the court.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes. In New Jersey, filing a petition for expungement carries a $75 filing fee.
Yes. Technically, anyone can file the necessary expungement forms themselves and represent themselves at the hearing. Indeed, online research will usually provide various guides and tips for taking on this process yourself. However, this is not advisable. Expungement laws are complicated, and the slightest of mistakes can lead your petition to be denied, resulting in wasted time and money.
No. The system is not designed to evaluate one’s eligibility for expungement. It will simply accept your submission as correct and accurate. The prosecutor will consider your eligibility and object at court if you are indeed ineligible. The court may also recognize if you are ineligible and deny your petition on this basis.
Whom Should I Contact?
A criminal record is a harsh and lasting imposition on one’s life. Getting your criminal convictions expunged can go a long way towards leaving your criminal convictions firmly in the past. While New Jersey has done much to make expungements simple and accessible, as with any legal process, things can quickly become complicated. The capable attorneys at Rosenblum Law have decades of experience expertly navigating the expungements process and are committed to making things as quick and painless as possible. If you or a loved one wish to have a criminal record expunged, email or call 888-815-3649 for a free consultation.