A judge in the court that handled the criminal case has the power to seal:
- a first time drug possession conviction where the person did not violate any requirements connected to being on probation or a “CWOF” (continuance without a finding) such as going to drug treatment or doing community service;
- any cases where you were found “not guilty;”
- any cases that were dismissed or ended in a nolle prosequi (a case dropped by the District Attorney) even if you were on probation.
Before May 4, 2012, dismissed cases with supervised probation were treated like convictions and could not be sealed by a judge.
If you are not a citizen, you need to consult with an immigration lawyer before sealing your records. You will need certified copies to apply for citizenship at a later time and certified copies of papers from your case(s) for hearings on your immigration status. If your cases are sealed, you might miss a deadline to file copies of the criminal records in time for your immigration case.
It often is a good idea to get a certified copy of the complaint and docket and the police report in case you need it in the future. If you apply for a job with the federal government (U.S. Census, Social Security Administration, IRS, etc.), an FBI background check usually shows a criminal case was filed, but it may not say what happened at the end of the case. You can use the certified copies to explain what happened in your case without having to go back to court to unseal your record.
The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has made it easier to seal criminal cases through the court process. In Commonwealth v. Pon, 469 Mass. 296 (2014), the SJC threw out the old legal standard for sealing of cases that was very strict and based on the public’s First Amendment right to see your records. Under the new legal standard, you have to show “good cause” to seal a record. To show there is “good cause” to seal records, there must be “credible” evidence of a “disadvantage” happening right now or which might happen in in the future because of your CORI. Things that a judge can consider are:
- You were denied a job or can’t get a job or can only find part-time work because of your CORI;
- You are having trouble getting housing, or are homelessness, or may become homelessness because of CORI;
- Employers use CORI in your occupation or in an occupation you’d like to work in;
- The CORI reduces your chances for a promotion, internships, or better or higher paying jobs);
- You and/or your family are on public assistance despite your efforts to get a job;
- You have trouble volunteering or doing community activities due to CORI;
- A lot of time has passed since the case was filed against you;
- You are sober and have made efforts to rehabilitate yourself;
- You have made efforts toward self-improvement (classes, programs, GED, degree, certificate, etc.) ;
- You do volunteer work and/or other work to help in your community;
- You successfully completed probation in your case(s);
- You have had no further contact with the criminal justice system;
- You have other evidence of rehabilitation from the date of the offense or dismissal;
- Your situation at the time of arrest should be considered (e.g. you were a teenager);
- There is stigma or stereotypes related to the type of case that hurt your chances to get a job, etc. and
- The reason for dismissal or nolle prosequi (dropping of a case) and any other information relevant to sealing your case(s). For example, you were found not guilty, arrested by mistake, etc.
The process for sealing of cases in court is free. To seal your cases, you need to file a Petition to Seal in the court that handled your criminal case. Get this form online or at the courthouse.
To increase your chance of success in court, it may help to file other documents such as:
☐ An Affidavit (sworn statement) explaining how your CORI hurts you and why the judge should seal your case. For example, you got rejected for jobs, internships, and/or housing, are unemployed, on public assistance because of your record.See the list of factors above under “burden of proof.”
☐ Support letters from professionals or others saying positive things about you and explaining how your CORI hurts you. For example, after your last case, you got a GED, finished job training or drug treatment, and are working hard to get your life on track, but you get rejected for jobs or other opportunities because of your CORI. See a sample changed person letter.
☐ Rejection letters from employers denying you jobs, especially if based on your CORI.
Make copies of everything you file in court. And bring the copies to the hearing(s) because the judge may ask about something you wrote.
Look at some sample forms that might be helpful to you in filling out your own forms:
Sample Petition to Court to Seal Record of Adult or Juvenile Massachusetts Court Appearances This is just a sample to look at.
Where to file
If you want to seal cases in more than one court, you have to file paperwork in each court. The only exception is Boston Municipal Court (BMC) which permits a person trying to seal 3 or more BMC charges to file a petition to seal all the BMC cases or charges in one division of the BMC.
To make sure you know about all your cases that might be sealed, get a copy of your CORI.
When to file
There is no waiting period to file a petition to seal a non-conviction. However, if you are in jail or have criminal cases still going on in court, your case for sealing of records is weak. The more time that has passed after your last arrest or court date, the easier it is to convince a judge that you are not likely to get in trouble with the law in the future and there is no need to keep your record open.
You have a right to look at your criminal case files at the courthouse. It is a good idea to look at any police reports in the file because the judge usually reads these reports and may ask you questions about the police report. You may have trouble remembering what happened in your cases or your CORI report may be hard for you to read.
The court process
The process to seal cases in court is free. After you file your paperwork in court, you will have one or two hearings. If the court uses a two step process, the judge enters an order at the first hearing deciding whether you have said enough in person or in your papers for the judge to believe that your CORI might put you at a disadvantage at the present time or in the future. If the judge rules in your favor, a second hearing will be scheduled where the judge will make the decision about whether to seal your record(s). Notice of the second hearing will be posted in the court house in or near the clerk’s office.
If the court uses a one step process, they post notice of the hearing in the clerk’s office and you must appear at the hearing which will be your final hearing.
Make sure you know the date and time of your hearing(s)
If you lose at any hearing, you should seek legal advice from an attorney immediately.
What to do at the hearing
Here are tips about how to act and what to say at the hearing.
- Bring a copy of what you filed in court to the hearing because the judge may ask questions about the paperwork you filed. You may not remember what you wrote in the paperwork you filed if you do not have a copy.
- Be on time for hearing(s) and be courteous and patient with people at the courthouse.
- Be respectful to the judge and do not interrupt the judge or anyone else who speaks. Wait until it is your turn to speak, but speak up so you can be heard.
- Do point out how your CORI harms or puts you at a disadvantage now or might harm or put you at a disadvantage in the future.
- Tell the judge about past job, housing or other rejections caused by your record and future problems you're likely to have because of your record. If you have copies of rejection letters from employers and/or letters from counselors saying that you need to seal your CORI to get a job or deserve to seal your record, remind the judge about those letters.
- Point out the good things you've done or are trying to do. The judge may ask you what you've been doing since your cases were dismissed. You can bring to the judge's attention any letters of reference you have filed or brought to court.
- If a social worker, job counselor, family member or other person has come to court with you and is ready to speak on your behalf as a witness, let the judge know this. Be sure that you know in advance what the witness will say.
- Be prepared for the judge to ask about what happened in the case(s) you are trying to seal, or why any cases were dismissed. For example, in some cases, the response might be: "I successfully completed drug treatment and the case was dismissed" or “I I was found not guilty" or " I was arrested by mistake so the District Attorney dropped the case;" or " I paid the money owed for the 'bounced' check so the case was dismissed;" or "the case was dismissed after I went to anger management classes” or “this was the first time I got in trouble so the case was dismissed.” An Assistant District Attorney in the courtroom may be asked whether he or she objects to the sealing of your record(s). Be polite and be sure not to lose your temper if he or she objects to sealing of your record.
- If the judge thinks your record should be sealed, the judge will grant your petition. If the judge wants more time to think about it, the case will be “taken under advisement”and you’ll get called or get the decision in the mail.
- If you lose at the hearing, seek legal advice of an attorney immediately.
Job applications after you seal your record
If an employer, including a state, county, and/or city government employer in Massachusetts asks about your CORI , you may answer that you have “no record” as to the sealed record.