Can I seal my criminal record in Massachusetts?
Yes, you can. If you case is over, and if you have served any sentence or term of probation that was given to you, you can seal the record of your case and get a new start.
Sealing a Massachusetts criminal record is a powerful and effective way to preserve your future after a criminal case is dismissed, continued without a finding (“CWOF”), or even if you plead or are found guilty of a Massachusetts misdemeanor or felony. Once your Massachusetts criminal case is sealed, it disappears from view for almost all purposes, including employment applications, educational institutions and housing providers or landlords.
When can I seal the record of my case?
When you can ask the court to seal your case varies depending on the outcome of the case, as we discuss below. For cases that ended in a conviction, there is a waiting period. If the charge was dismissed or you were found not guilty, you can ask for it to be sealed right away.
For criminal convictions, there is a waiting period before they can be sealed. Misdemeanors can be sealed after five years. Felonies can be sealed after ten years. These are eligible for sealing after the waiting period through an administrative process by mail.
The clock begins at release from incarceration or custody, or from the end of any probation period. If the sentence did not include incarceration, the clock begins at the time of disposition (the conclusion of court proceedings) which includes up to the end of probation.
Any intervening convictions reset the clock. If you get a new conviction, the clock is reset for all of your prior convictions, no matter how old they are.
A first-time drug possession conviction can be sealed without a waiting period, but the decision is up to a judge.
Dismissals and CWOF’s.
A criminal charge that ends in a dismissal, nolle prosequi, or finding of not guilty or no probable cause may be sealed by a judge without a waiting period. You can request that the case be sealed right away.
If your case ended in a Continuance Without a Finding (CWOF) or pretrial probation you can ask that it be sealed immediately upon the end of that probation period.
Is it guaranteed that my dismissed case will be sealed if I ask?
Sadly, sealing of your record of a dismissed or “not guilty” charge is not automatic or guaranteed.
A judge can order sealing of the charges only upon entry of specific findings on the record “showing closure is necessary to achieve a compelling interest.” The value to you of sealing the record must clearly outweigh the constitutionally based value of the record remaining open to the public. You must show that sealing the record furthers “substantial justice” and “that he or she risks suffering specific harm if the record is not sealed.”
What does this mean? It means that you have to show a judge that the existence of the record of your case is causing you some real – not hypothetical – hardship. Sometimes this is easy, as when you lose a job opportunity because of a CORI check. But often it requires the assistance of a lawyer to convince the judge that the record is a real hardship for you.
Do I need a lawyer to get my record sealed?
You don’t have to have a lawyer to get your record sealed. However, there are rules that can be confusing and procedural requirements that you must follow in order to get your case sealed, and it probably makes sense to have a lawyer help you. If you have to go before a judge and convince him that the hardship to you of having your case not sealed is greater than the need for the public to have access to the court record, you should have an experienced lawyer represent you in court.