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.
Burden of proof
The level of proof you must show to seal a case is high and public notice of your hearing on a petition to seal is posted at the courthouse. The judge only can seal the record if leaving the record open puts you at risk of harm and your interest in sealing the record is greater than public’s constitutional right (under the First Amendment of the Constitution) to see the record. The judge must find there is a “compelling interest” in sealing the record and that “substantial justice would be served” by sealing the record.
The process for sealing of cases in court is free. To seal your cases, you need to file one or more of the following documents in the court that handled your criminal case.
☐ Petition to Seal (Get this form online or at the courthouse)
☐ Motion to Seal Records (usually required by courts that use a 2 step hearing process)
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.
☐ 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.
Look at some sample forms that might be helpful to you in filling out your own forms:
Sample Petition to Seal for sealing CORI by mail.
Sample Petition to Court to Seal Adult or Juvenile Criminal Record and Motion to Seal Record This is just a sample to look at. To file this petition you need to get the special multi-colored, triplicate form from the court where your case was heard.
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. Once a reasonable amount of time has passed after your last conviction and last court date, it may be easier 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. This might be helpful if you have trouble remembering what happened in your cases or the CORI is unclear.