Can a Criminal Record Ever Be Fully Expunged?

In June of 2017, the police came to Alan’s house around 6 a.m. with a warrant. Alan, a 51-year-old father and IT professional in New Jersey, had never been arrested before. So he was baffled when the police told him he had failed to appear in court earlier that spring. He was fingerprinted and photographed and spent five days waiting to see a judge, only to have the pending charges dismissed. It turned out that a summons to appear in municipal court earlier that month had been mailed to an old address, and Alan never received it. But the judge offered a quick remedy: expunging the arrest record. Knowing this helped Alan recover and move on from the incident. Four months later, he received his “automatic” expungement order in the mail.

Criminal-record expungement and sealing laws are an increasingly popular and seemingly simple reform. The logic is sound: For the criminal justice system to work effectively, the system must also let people move on from their past and have equal access to employment and housing, unburdened by the stigma of a criminal record years later.

But two months after his expungement went through, Alan was dismayed when he Googled himself and found his booking photo posted to dozens of online mug-shot galleries. That might be expected, but he also found himself on government websites: The local police department posts a PDF file of weekly arrests, which was indexed by Google, and it shows up for search results of Alan’s name. Further, the local county jail roster allows users to search for previously jailed inmates who had since been released.

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