A criminal record can have many negative consequences. It can harm your employment prospects, and render you ineligible for a range of government services, benefits and grants.

Massachusetts laws create a mechanism for petitioning to seal a criminal record. This can be done in court or through the Commissioner of Probation. Particularly where you can show that you have suffered some harm has come from your record, and that you have otherwise stayed out of trouble, judges will often sympathize. There are also certain categories of offenses, such as small-amount personal-use marijuana offenses, that must be sealed due to changes in the law.

Expunging is extremely rare in Massachusetts, reserved for only extreme cases. The separation of powers limits the power of a judge to order police to destroy documents. A petitioner faces a heavy evidence burden. Being found not guilty by a jury is not enough. Usually it’s better not attempted, except for in extraordinary circumstances.

One should always consider whether it is worth going through the trouble. An old unlicensed driving or disorderly conduct charge will not affect the life of most people applying to private sector jobs. Many charges not resulting in a “guilty” finding are not even visible to most private sector employers anyway. Meanwhile some other potential employers can see everything, even if the record is sealed. Caretakers of vulnerable populations, law enforcement, and national security employers have virtually unfettered access to criminal records.

Before deciding whether to attempt to seal or expunge a record, it’s important to talk to an attorney about your specific circumstances.