Though it is impossible to wish away the past, sometimes regrettable mistakes can be obscured from the public record so that they do not hamper employment or education prospects.
Legal mechanisms such as record sealing and expungement, both of which prohibit the public from accessing criminal records, vary from state to state. Tennessee allows erasure of nonconvictions and sealing of most misdemeanors and low-level felonies.
Why Seek Record Sealing?
Sealing records such as arrest reports and court files blocks the information from public view, while under expungement, documents and files are destroyed. Although Tennessee calls the procedure it permits "expungement," the records remain intact except in the case of nonconvictions.
Individuals whose records have been sealed or expunged are legally permitted to answer "no" if most employers, landlords or institutions inquire about criminal history. There are, however, exceptions that permit law enforcement agencies and certain state agencies access to sealed records, and applicants to law schools or to practice law must reveal arrest or criminal histories as well.
What Records Can Be Sealed?
For charges that did not result in convictions, the records can be expunged quickly after the case is dismissed or acquitted, and once the individual reaches 18 years of age, juvenile records are sealed automatically in most instances. Many misdemeanors and minor felonies carrying sentences of three years or less can be sealed five years after the final resolution. This includes crimes such as:
- Offenses involving financial dishonest, including theft, worthless checks and many varieties of fraud
- Drug paraphernalia use and minor drug sales or possession charges
- Property crimes such as vandalism, burglary or aggravated littering
Those applying must have no criminal convictions other than the ones they want sealed.
What Is the Process?
The process begins by filing a "petition for expungement" with the court clerk in the county where the offense occurred. Procedures vary from county to county, so individuals should take care to use the proper one. A hefty $350 fee is assessed statewide for all convictions, with most agencies requiring payment in cash, money orders or cashier's checks. Some counties offer sample forms online, and an attorney can assist in drafting the petition if no template is available.
At a minimum, the application will require information about the charge and the indictment number if there was one; most jurisdictions require date of birth, date of offense, Social Security number, and current address and phone number. Other counties want receipts from the court clerk showing that all fines and restitution have been paid. Once the petition has been submitted, the district attorney will have an opportunity to register objections. If any objection is filed, a hearing likely will be scheduled, at which the judge will hear both sides state their cases.
If the petition is granted, agencies have 60 days to remove records from files and online or to destroy them in the case of nonconvictions. It is a good idea to follow up and ensure that the removal actually happened. Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies do not have to remove or destroy confidential investigation records, though those normally are not publicly accessible anyway.
While a pardon might help an individual make a compelling case to a potential employer that he has been rehabilitated, clemency does not expunge or seal a Tennessee criminal record.
Seeking Legal Counsel
Record-sealing and expungement law in Tennessee is complicated, and those who file unsuccessful requests must wait two years before filing again. It is best to consult a local attorney for assistance in compiling an application.