Applying for jobs when you have a criminal history can be extremely difficult. Small infractions and arrests that later turned into non-convictions may be easily explained to an employer, but more serious charges — such as a misdemeanor or felony conviction — are much more difficult to explain.
Felonies are the harshest sentences for crimes in the United States. Felony convictions can show up on a background check for the rest of your life, unless you go through the process of expungement. However, not all felonies are eligible for expungement, but if they are eligible, it can be well worth the hassle to erase those grievous charges from your record.
How can you know if your felony charges are eligible for expungement, and how can you go through that process? What is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony conviction, and what are some common examples of felonies? Let’s look at the answers to these questions, and consider how you can legally work on erasing your criminal history for good.
Table of Contents
What is a Felony?
In the United States, felonies are the most serious sentences for crimes, and are typically punishable with a prison sentence of over one year and excessive fines. By legal definition, they are considered crimes of high seriousness or “crimes of moral turpitude,” which are defined as depravity or wickedness. In society, these crimes are often viewed severely, and the punishment may be adjusted to meet the crime.
Those that have been convicted of a felony charge are often referred to as “felons,” and each state can have their own definition or sentencing practices for felony convictions. Additionally, felonies often result in the loss of civilian privileges for the individual convicted. You can find out more about this in the bottom section of this article.
Misdemeanor Vs Felony
Compared to misdemeanors, felonies are considered much more severe. Misdemeanors are also seen as semi-serious crimes, but often do not have the extensive sentencing or loss of rights that accompanies a felony conviction.
Misdemeanors can be categorized into three distinct classes that rate the crime based on seriousness. Less serious crimes or “petty misdemeanors” have much smaller sentences and fines than more serious or “gross misdemeanors.” The more serious forms of misdemeanors can oftentimes be seen as almost as serious as a felony, and some crimes may vary by state between felony and gross misdemeanor. In legal terms, these sorts of convictions are often referred to as “wobblers,” and the laws surrounding these sorts of misdemeanor crimes can be very severe — almost as severe as a felony conviction — depending on the state.
Additionally, multiple misdemeanors of a similar crime (such as multiple “Driving Under the Influence (DUI)” charges) can sometimes be converted to or result in a felony charge, depending on a judge’s decision or state laws.
Types of Felony Charges
Every state and jurisdiction has their own definition and sentencing for individual crimes, including felonies. Some common examples of felony charges may include:
- Aggravated Assault or Battery
- Animal Cruelty
- Blackmail or Extortion
- Computer Crime Fraud or Abuse (Identity Theft or Hacking)
- Check, Mail, or Wire Fraud
- Copyright Infringement
- Crimes of a Sexual Nature: Rape, Sexual Assault, Child Endangerment or Child Pornography
- Forgery (of Checks or Money)
- Grand Theft
- Manslaughter (First Degree, Second Degree, Negligent Homicide, etc)
- Perjury (lying under oath)
- Tax Evasion
- Threatening an Official
- Vandalism of Federal Property
- Vehicular Manslaughter
Rights Lost Due to Felony Conviction: Things You Can’t Do
Unfortunately, being charged with a felony comes with a lot of added consequences. Besides paying large fines and having to serve jail or prison time, felons also often lose some of their human rights as United States citizens. Often times these limitations can also vary by state, and some states are working hard to limit the impact a felony can have on someone’s rights.
In general, the most common limitations that felony convictions can cause include the following:
- Disenfranchisement: This is the legal term for being excluded from voting. Essentially, some states bar felons from ever being allowed to vote again, while other states only disenfranchise felons until they’ve served their time, met the requirements of their parole, and have paid all their associated fines. This law is permitted by the Fourteenth Amendment. Additionally, some states do not allow felons to run for government office.
- Exclusion from certain Licenses: Felony conviction can often result in the inability to gain a travel visa or even a passport, and some countries can bar those with a felony completely (Canada is a common example). Additionally, felonies can prevent some people from obtaining operational licenses required for professional purposes (teaching, security clearance, etc), which make some jobs impossible for those with a felony conviction.
- Exclusion from certain Purchases: If you have a felony conviction, you cannot purchase firearms, ammunition, or body armor.
- Ineligible to Serve on a Jury: Felons are not allowed to participate in jury duty.
- Ineligible for Government Assistance: Felons can be barred from welfare, federally funded housing, federal student aid (for college), and other social services or government assistant programs.
- Potential Deportation: If not a citizen of the United States, individuals that are charged with a felony could face deportation and further restrictions from re-entering the country.
However, besides these restrictions, those convicted of a felony also face the added challenge of finding employment — which is an essential key to reducing recidivism (known as the potential for an individual to reoffend and return to prison/jail). Finding employment can almost guarantee that a person is able to properly re-adjust to society after serving time, and that they’re able to start making a living and rejoin society and their community.
Unfortunately, because it can be so hard to find a job with a felony — it is illegal to discriminate against those with a criminal record, but employers can still reject applications with reason due to a background check — it can be especially difficult not to fall back into criminal behavior. Additionally, rental housing, banks and loan offices, and other institutions may create additional barriers for those with a criminal history.
Expunging a felony conviction can be an essential step to regaining control over your life and returning to society. If you have the ability to request an expungement — and you’ve ensured that you’ve complied with all the necessary requirements — then you should start that process as soon as possible.
Requesting an expungement for a felony conviction can be extremely difficult. In some states, there may not be any viable pathways to request an expungement, and you may instead have to request a pardon by the governor or clemency. In federal courts, there are no processes to request expungement for a federal felony, and instead you must request a pardon by the President of the United States.
However, many states are also realizing the impact a felony conviction can have on employability, as well as a person’s ability to rejoin society. Because of this, some laws are changing to allow felony conviction expungements to become more accessible to people convicted of certain felony charges.
Can a Felony Be Expunged?
On a federal level, federal felony charges cannot be expunged.
However, on a state-by-state basis, some minor felony charges can be expunged. More serious felony charges are rarely, if ever, eligible for expungement.
The definition and requirements for requesting an expungement can vary widely between states, which can make it difficult to determine if you’re eligible. The best way to determine your eligibility is to speak with a local law professional or lawyer, or to research the laws of your state yourself. The Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC) offers a state comparison chart for expungement and sealed record laws that can help you determine if you’re eligible for expungement.
Sealed Records Vs Expunged Records Vs Pardons
A common area of confusion is the difference between legally sealing a record, legally expunging a record, and receiving a legal pardon.
Sealing a record is a common occurrence for juvenile offenses, and you’ll often hear this term of phrase in regards to those sentences. Some states may even automatically seal juvenile records when the accused has reached the age of adulthood for that state (typically 18), while other states may require you to file a petition for sealing the records. The main difference between a sealed record and an expungement is that sealed records still exist on your record, but they are hidden unless an interested individual (such as law enforcement) files a court order to view them.
Expungement or Expunged Records
Expunged records, on the other hand, are a permanent removal of your charges from your criminal record. They typically require a petition for expungement, have specific criteria to follow to be eligible, and are not eligible for major offenses (such as serious felony charges) that resulted in a conviction. However, some charges may result in a deferred judgement or dismissal, and these are typically the best situations for requesting an expungement.
A pardon forgives a convicted individual of their offense, and may cancel any of their remaining sentence or punishment (jail time, fees, probation, etc). The right to pardon is typically reserved for the executive branch of that jurisdiction: the President for federal crimes, and the state governor for state-level crimes.
However, the criminal record for those charges will remain, even after a pardon. Essentially, a pardon is a recognition that the convicted individual has successfully turned their life around — which can be beneficial, but your charges will still show up on a background check. Depending on the state you live in, you may be able to get those charges erased through a petition of expungement.
Is There a 7 Year Felony Rule?
Felonies will stay on your record permanently. They are the most serious of offenses, and they are not handed out lightly. Your criminal record will be cleared only by having your record of charges sealed or expunged. Unfortunately, this means having a criminal background check performed for hiring or housing purposes can make it difficult for you to find employment or housing.
Luckily, older convictions can often appear less serious to those investigating your background, and if you’ve received a pardon or a certificate of rehabilitation, you can use that to show how your life has turned around since those convictions occured. Additionally, some states have issued a “ban the box” law, which prohibits employers from asking on an application if you have a criminal record. Instead, they have to save those questions for later in the hiring process, which can give you the opportunity to control the narrative and find a positive spin to put on your rehabilitation since your conviction.
Finally, if you’ve been arrested for a felony but were later found not guilty of committing that crime, your arrest may remain on your record for seven years. However, after that seven year time, that arrest is no longer allowed to appear on a background check. This is enforced by the Fair Trade Commission (FTC) and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). You also have the added protection of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which prohibits discrimination in employment — even with a criminal record.
How to Expunge a Felony
Some states may offer expungement, but refer to it as a different name, while other states may only allow a pardon, sealing of records, or certificate of rehabilitation. For example, in California, expungement or other forms of dismissed charges may refer to:
- A certificate of rehabilitation: this is often the first step in being pardoned, which is different from an expungement, but can have a similar beneficial effect.
- Set-aside, or dismissal of charges: this is reserved for minor felony charges (in California), and is the same as an expungement or sealing of records.
- Deferred sentencing or post-plea deferred entry of judgement: reserved for minor felonies (in California), this requires successful completion of probation, as well as an application to court. Deferred sentencing may lower minor felony charges to a misdemeanor status, while post-plea deferred entry of judgement is reserved for drug offenses, only, and may result in dismissal of charges.
Although the above examples are specific to California, other states may have similar systems in place and similar legal jargon for expungement of a felony record.
Additionally, criteria for expungement can vary by state, but may be similar to the below examples:
- Sufficient time passed since the indictment or the conclusion of the criminal case
- No additional criminal history since the charges were first filed
- No convictions for serious felonies or other certain disqualifying offenses
- Minimal or no prior criminal history
- Completion of all terms of deferred disposition, probation, parole, and the sentence
Consult a Professional
To expunge your record, you must first find out if you have the ability to expunge your felony conviction in the state where you were charged. Next, ensure that you have complied with all the requirements or criteria that the state requires (such as the above examples).
Since legal jargon is often difficult to understand, it can be helpful to consult a professional attorney, or someone who is familiar with your state’s laws. Although it is not required to have an attorney for an expungement request, they have the expertise that you need to seek out the proper route for expungement.
Filing a Petition for Expungement
As long as you have followed those steps, you can then file a petition for expungement to the courthouse or court jurisdiction where you were charged. Keep in mind, if you have multiple charges, you will need to file an expungement request for each charge.
Once you have filed your request, all you’ll have to do is wait for a verdict. If you are called into court to tell your story or further explain, be sure not to miss your court date.
If you find that your charges are not eligible for expungement, it may still be worth your while to try to receive a certificate of rehabilitation or a legal pardon. Both have the ability to showcase how you have learned and grown from an otherwise negative experience, and both can help you bolster your transformation to potential employers or other individuals that may perform a background check on you.
Having a felony conviction can create many different barriers in your life, but there are options you can seek out to try to improve your situation and prove your willingness to change for the better.
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