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Who Can See Expunged Records in Washington State?

So, after paying back your debts to society you’ve finally expunged your criminal record. Now your record is gone, right? Wrong!

Expunged records still exist, and there are people who can see expunged records—more people than you might realize.

Today in the Findley & Rogers Law Blog, we are asking the questions:

  • Are Expunged Records Public?
  • Who Can See Expunged Records?

We’ll be talking about the law as it applies in Washington State.

The Benefits of Expungement

Once you get a conviction expunged (formally known as “vacating” a conviction), there are three main benefits:

  • You can legally state that you were never convicted of that offense. (For example, if a job application asks whether you were ever convicted of a crime, and the expunged crime was the only conviction on your record, you can lawfully answer “No.”)
  • Your conviction is “set aside,” meaning that you are relieved of most of the legal penalties that resulted from it. (There are some exceptions. For example, the WA Department of Licensing does not recognize expungements and maintains its own, separate records. And vacating or expunging a conviction does not restore firearm rights.)
  • Your conviction will no longer be reported out by the Washington State Patrol to the agencies that are used by employers, landlords, and financial institutions to perform background checks. You will come up “clean” in these searches.

However, as we discussed above, expungement doesn’t destroy the record itself. It only relieves you of the legal penalties. Are expunged records public? Yes, they are! After expungement, the physical court record and its electronic counterparts will still exist and will still be viewable to anyone who specifically searches for them.

Who Can See Expunged Records?

This is an important point to understand:

  • Almost anybody can view an expunged record.

Court records are public records. The reasoning behind this is that society has a vested interest in generally making court records public.

You can go to the Washington Courts website right now—or to your county or city website, depending on where your case was tried—and enter your name or anyone else’s. The basic overview should come up, and you could then go to the court and search for the full record. Many cities and counties even have these records available online.

So it’s not a matter of who can see expunged records. It’s a matter of who wants to see them.

Who Would Want to See an Expunged Record?

Expunged records are public, which means that anyone can view them. But here’s the good news: most people don’t care. Most people are not going to check. Most don’t even know that this information exists, or that it is searchable by the public.

But there are some exceptions. Here are some types of people who can see expunged records in Washington State and might have a good reason to want this information:

  • Prosecutors, Judges, and Attorneys: If there are any legal investigations, lawsuits, or charges pending against you, numerous legal officials may have a vested interest in researching your background.
  • Investors and Potential Business Partners: Anyone who is considering entering into a significant financial relationship with you might, in the course of doing their due diligence, research whether you have any criminal history.
  • Journalists: If you are a figure of public interest, journalists may research your background. On the list of people who can see expunged records, journalists might sound the most intimidating, but in practice this kind of investigation is quite rare.
  • Some Employers: This is uncommon, but some employers will go to the trouble of conducting a more in-depth background check than normal, especially if you are applying for a job that requires a security screening.
  • Rivals & Competitors: There is nothing to stop rivals and competitors from researching your history to gain a competitive edge. If they know which court tried your case, they will be able to find your record.

These are just a few examples of people who can see expunged records and might have a good reason to look up yours.

Are Expunged Records Public If You Seal Them?

So, what can you do to stop this from happening? You can petition the court to seal your criminal record. This is one of our core areas of practice at Findley & Rogers, and it complements expungement of records. Expungement relieves you of the legal burdens of the crime. Sealing your record makes it so that the general public can no longer see it.

Who can see expunged records after they’ve been sealed? Not many people! Judges, for example, will always be able to see your full record, as will a few others. Generally speaking, however, sealing your record is an effective way to keep most people from gaining access to it.

Talk to Findley & Rogers for a Free Consultation

Now that you know the answer to “Are expunged records public?” is “Yes” and the answer to “Who can see expunged records?” is “Almost anybody,” you can take steps to exercise control over your criminal history.

We often recommend both expunging your conviction and sealing your criminal record. These two legal remedies go a long way toward letting you take back control of your life and move on from the past. We can also help with restoring your firearm rights, which is an important goal for many of our clients.

Contact us for a free consultation to discuss whether expungement and sealing are right for your situation.