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Expungements, Sealing, Limited Access Orders, & Pardons

Many students are concerned about how a citation, charge, or conviction will impact their future employment. Pennsylvania law provides three ways to clean up a criminal record: expungement, limited access order, and pardon.

Pennsylvania passed a new law, called the Clean State bill, which will further expand the options for sealing records, and includes automatic sealing of certain records. Most provisions of the bill went into effect in June 2019. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia maintains up to date information on the Clean Slate bill.

Expungement

If a court orders an expungement, all court and administrative criminal history record information related to the charge or conviction are destroyed. Expungement can be requested only for certain types of records: 

  • Non-conviction data (this includes charges and citations that result in a disposition of 'not guilty,' 'withdrawn,' 'dismissed,' 'dismissed-YOP/YES,' or 'nolle prosse').
  • Underage drinking convictions--at age 21 and upon completion of all court-ordered requirements, including the driver's license suspension, if required.
  • Other summary offenses--after 5 years as long as the individual has been free from arrest or prosecution during that time.

Limited Access Order

A criminal record can be sealed through a “Limited Access Order,” which is an order that limits the dissemination of certain criminal history record information.  Once obtained, criminal justice agencies and children and youth services would still be able to access the information, but the general public would not have the same access.  For example, a private employer would not be able to access the information and would be prohibited from even asking about sealed records. There are several important exceptions to these general rules, so before you answer a question on a job application, you should talk to a lawyer.

The rules determining what offenses are eligible for limited access orders are complicated.  Generally, limited access orders can be granted after an individual files a Petition for Limited Access for certain offenses graded as high as misdemeanors of the first degree.  A filing fee is required by the court for this Petition.  To be eligible, some requirements are that you must have paid your financial obligations of the sentence in full, have not been convicted of a third-degree misdemeanor or higher within 10 years of the date of the conviction, and never been convicted of certain criminal offenses. Talk to an attorney if you think you may be eligible.

Pardon

For convictions that are not eligible for expungement or limited access order, the only way to remove the crime from a criminal history record is to first obtain a pardon. If a pardon is granted, the record can then be expunged. A pardon is an extreme remedy and rarely granted. Consideration of a pardon application takes several years and may require that the applicant demonstrate years of living a productive, law-abiding life before starting the application process.

Automatic Sealing

On June 28, 2019, the automatic sealing provisions of the Pennsylvania “Clean Slate” law went into effect. Starting on that date, county courts throughout Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Police will begin the process of automatically sealing eligible criminal history records. This process is automatic, so the individual who has the criminal record does not need to file a petition or pay a filing fee. This law gives the court and the Pennsylvania State Police one year to complete the automatic sealing process for current offenses. Once automatically sealed, the same limited dissemination rules that were discussed above in the Limited Access Order section apply to the automatic sealing process.

Like the rules for Petitions for Limited Access orders, the eligibility requirements for automatic sealing of prior convictions are quite complicated. Certain convictions of offenses graded as high as misdemeanors of the second degree can be eligible.  Some general eligibility requirements are that you must have paid your financial obligations of the sentence in full, have not been convicted of a third-degree misdemeanor or higher within 10 years of the date of the conviction, and never been convicted of certain criminal offenses.

If you have charges that were dismissed, withdrawn, or resulted in a disposition that did not result in a conviction, then you are eligible for the automatic sealing. Additionally, summary convictions are eligible after 10 years from the date of the conviction.

Requesting an Expungement, Limited Access Order, or Pardon

To obtain an expungement or limited access order, you must petition for the relief in the court of common pleas for the county in which you were cited or arrested. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has blank forms available

To request a pardon for state convictions, follow the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons process. For federal criminal convictions, follow the U.S. Department of Justice process.

Employment and Background Checks FAQs

What is a Governor’s Pardon?

A pardon is an official act of mercy taken by the Governor of Pennsylvania upon the recommendation of the PA Board of Pardons.  A pardon completely frees an individual from the control of the state, exempting an individual from further punishment and relieving an individual from all the legal disabilities resulting from a conviction. 

Examples of such legal disabilities include, but are not limited to, the right to purchase or carry a firearm, right to hold public office, right to be a juror, the right to vote, and the opportunity to obtain certain employment.

What is an Expungement?

An expungement is a court-ordered administrative act of destroying or removing an individual’s criminal history record information, such as conviction, arrest, and similar record. Once a charge is eligible for expungement, the defendant still has to petition the court to request this remedy.

Is it easier to get a pardon or an expungement?

A pardon is an extreme remedy and rarely granted. Consideration of a pardon application takes several years. If you have a conviction that is eligible for expungement, the process is complete in less than one year. The court may still have the ability to deny an expungement request, but expungements are granted more readily than pardons.

Will my record be expunged if I’m granted a pardon?

No, a pardon does not expunge the conviction from your criminal record.  If you are granted a pardon, however, you would become eligible to have your conviction records to be expunged.

If convicted of an offense, when do I become eligible to have a criminal record sealed or expunged?

It depends based upon the offense committed and the grading of the offense.

Underage Drinking: A person is eligible to have the conviction record expunged after he or she turns twenty-one years of age and has completed all court-ordered requirements, including the driver’s license suspension, if required.

Other summary offense: A person is eligible to have a conviction record expunged after 5 years, so long as they have been free from arrest or prosecution during that time.

Misdemeanors: Some ungraded, second and third degree misdemeanors are eligible for a limited access order if the individual is free from conviction for 10 years. Others are not. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has a helpful chart on eligibility (which includes those that will become eligible in June 2019 under the Clean Slate bill). A Governor's pardon is the only remaining option if a misdemeanor conviction is not eligible for sealing or expungement.

Felony or first degree misdemeanor: Felonies and first degree misdemeanors are not eligible for limited access orders. Certain misdemeanors are eligible for expungement once an individual has been dead for three years or after has 70 years old and has been free from arrest or prosecution for 10 years.

For all felonies, and most first degree misdemeanors, the only way to obtain an expungement is to first obtain a Governor’s pardon.

If I receive a pardon, and then am asked by an employer or future employer whether I have been convicted of a crime, can I say no?

Yes, you can say that you were never convicted of a crime.  In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Sutley, 378 A.2d 780, 789 (Pa. 1977), our Pennsylvania Supreme Court explained that a pardon “blots out the very existence of his guilt, so that, in the eye of the law, he is thereafter as innocent as if he had never committed the offense." Id.

Despite this language, it is recommended that, if you deny being convicted after receiving a pardon, you should explain that you were not convicted as a result of the pardon.

If I have my conviction records expunged but am asked by an employer or future employer whether I have been convicted of a crime even if it has been expunged, can I say no?

Generally, yes. A provision in the Clean Slate law provides that, if information regarding criminal history is requested, a person whose record has been expunged or sealed through the Clean Slate law may respond as if the offense did not occur.  However, there are exceptions to this law, such as if the information is requested by a criminal justice agency or disclosure is required by federal law, then you must disclose the record.

When completing an application, what are important things to consider?

You must be honest when completing an application but that does not mean you must provide more information when the employer does not specifically ask for that information.  Thus, it is important to know that certain terms have certain meanings, and it is important to read the question that is asked very carefully and only answer the question that is asked.

For instance, if you successfully completed ARD, YOP, or a similar diversionary program for an offense, you were never convicted of that offense.   Instead, the charge would have been legally dismissed.  If the question then only asks about convictions, you can answer honestly that you were never convicted.

For another example, an employer may ask only about felony convictions. If you were convicted of a misdemeanor and not a felony, then you can answer that you were never convicted of a felony and need not disclose the misdemeanor conviction.

No legal advice is provided on this website. Every case is different. For advice about your specific situation, please complete our intake form to request an appointment with an attorney.

Reviewed: July 2, 2019