Washington Court Records
Sealing and Expunging Criminal Records in Washington
A criminal record is a chronological history of an individual’s criminal activities within the jurisdiction of the state of Washington. It includes records maintained by law enforcement as well as the Washington judiciary. These agencies and other criminal justice agencies are official custodians of criminal records. Interested individuals and private entities may request and view an individual’s criminal record if the record is in the public domain. Sealing or expunging removes these records from the public domain and the access of most government agencies. However, this nuanced process involves paying close attention to every step. Of course, an individual can successfully initiate and complete the process solo, but alleged offenders are advised to employ an experienced attorney’s services. Nevertheless, due diligence requires that the interested individual is informed on the procedure.
The Difference Between Sealing and Expunging Criminal Records
In Washington, sealing and expungement are colloquial terms for removing a record from the public domain. These processes are different but share a few similarities. There is, however, a third term—vacating a sentencethat refers to clearing the events of trial and conviction. However, unlike sealing and expunging, prosecutors reserve the right to prosecute the individual afresh without the restraint of double jeopardy. Furthermore, records of a vacated conviction are still available to any interested requester and on background checks.
Meanwhile, sealing a record removes such a record from public access. The record custodians, i.e., the court, police, and criminal justice agencies, will deny unauthorized requests to view the record. The conviction still stands in this case. Requesters armed with a court order may access sealed records. On the other hand, expunging a record means the record custodian has deleted all existing information about the crime in the public domain and destroyed physical copies of the record in its possession. In this case, requesters armed with a court order cannot access expunged records. However, in some cases, the record custodian will maintain specific data relating to the conviction.
Eligibility Requirements to Expunge and Seal a Criminal Record in Washington.
Under Section 10.97.060 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), the law sets standards and criteria that individuals must meet before requesting that the court seals or expunges a record. It is important to note that as of October 2020, Washington only allows the expungement of non-conviction data, and the individual must meet other criteria such as:
- The record must consist of only non-conviction data;
- The individual is applying at least two years after the court entered a disposition favorable to the defendant;
- The individual is applying at least three years after the date of arrest, issuance of a citation, or warrant that did not result in a conviction;
- The individual is not applying to expunge or seal records of a deferred disposition or similar diversion;
- The individual does not have prior convictions for a felony or gross misdemeanor; and
- The individual has not been arrested for or indicted during the intervening period.
Records that are considered public may be accessible from some third-party websites. These websites often make searching simpler, as they are not limited by geographic location, and search engines on these sites may help when starting a search for a specific or multiple records. To begin using such a search engine on a third-party or government website, interested parties usually must provide:
- The name of the person involved in the record, unless said person is a juvenile
- The location or assumed location of the record or person involved. This includes information such as the city, county, or state that person resides in or was accused in.
Third-party sites are independent from government sources, and are not sponsored by these government agencies. Because of this, record availability on third-party sites may vary.
How to Seal a Criminal Record in Washington
Sealing a criminal record is a meticulous and often lengthy process that requires forbearance. In addition to meeting the requirements mentioned above, individuals who wish to seal criminal records must make a strong petition because the Washington judiciary places a high value on access to case information. Thus, the best practice is often to hire a qualified attorney who will examine the case’s merits and act on the client’s behalf. Nevertheless, the average Joe can also initiate and complete the process without professional legal services.
Per GR 15 of Washington court rules, the process begins with filing a motion to seal with the Clerk of Courts. Typically, this is in the county or city where the case was filed and tried. The interested individual may make inquiries at the Clerk’s Office. While court staff cannot provide legal advice, staff can point the individual towards helpful official resources, forms, and guidelines. The judiciary maintains a useful directory to find the court of interest. Then, the individual must serve a copy of the motion to other parties in the case and the state prosecutor, who will have a window of fifteen days to object to the motion to seal. Upon completing the service, the court will schedule a hearing date when a presiding judge will examine the merits of the motion to seal. In granting or denying the motion, the judge will consider whether sealing the record outweighs the public’s right to access the record.
To make a solid case, the individual must demonstrate a need, interest, or right that could be jeopardized if the record remains in the public domain. If successful, the court will only grant the motion to seal and issue an order to all records custodians (i.e., law enforcement and criminal justice agencies) to remove the record from public access for a specified period. After the period elapses, the individual must show justification for continued sealing.
How to Expunge a Criminal Record in Washington
The process of expunging a criminal record is not much different from sealing. The individual must also begin with filing a motion to expunge or delete and then complete the process. However, due to expungement’s permanent nature, Washington courts do not grant motions to expunge adult criminal convictions. On the other hand, most records of juvenile convictions are eligible for expungement.
Meanwhile, under RCW 43.43.730, when an individual was adjudged innocent after an indictment, the person may initiate the request for modification of criminal records with the Washington State Patrol. To begin, download and complete the modification request form. Then, enclose the completed form, a government-issued photo I. D., and money order or personal check for the applicable amount in a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Send mail to:
Washington State Patrol
Criminal History Records Section
106 11th Avenue Southwest Suite 1300
P. O. Box 42633
Olympia WA 98504–2633
Similarly, Washington laws make provisions for individuals who are victims of Compromised Identity Claim (CIC). CIC happens when an offender submits another person’s name and birth date at the time of an arrest. Victims of CIC must complete and submit a CIC form. Enclose the completed form, a government-issued photo I. D., and money order or personal check for $58.00 in a self-addressed stamped envelope. Send the mail to the address on the form.
What Crimes Can Be Sealed or Expunged in Washington?
The court rarely considers convicted adult felonies for sealing or expungement. The same applies to misdemeanors adjudged guilty. Most juvenile crimes are, however, eligible for expungement. The court will consider a motion to seal adult indictments and convictions records if the case was dismissed or the individual had been wrongfully indicted or convicted.
Do Sealed Records Show up In Washington Background Checks?
No, they do not. Only individuals and entities who possess a court order can access the records for criminal background checks. Nevertheless, if law enforcement indicts the individual for a new crime, the court will have access to the expunged data. Also, background check agencies and prospective employers that conduct background checks cannot access expunged records. Besides, in most cases, the individual does not have to mention the existence of an expunged record.
Who Can See Sealed Criminal Records in Washington?
Only the record custodian can see sealed criminal records in Washington. Other entities and even government agencies must obtain a court order to access sealed criminal records. Note that the court retains access to sealed criminal records of repeat offenders.
How to Obtain Sealed Records in Washington
As stated in section e of GR 15, requesters may only access sealed court records after the court unseals such records. Records can be unsealed after the seal period elapses or when the individual makes a court order requesting access to the sealed court record. Unless otherwise provided by state statutes, the court will only grant unsealing if there is proof of compelling circumstances or if the requester is statutorily entitled to view the sealed record.