What is the Difference Between Sealing and Expungement in California?

January 25, 2024


In the realm of criminal justice, the terms ‘sealing’ and ‘expungement’ are often used interchangeably, yet they represent entirely different legal remedies. Understanding these differences is crucial, especially under California law, where the distinction impacts one’s past and future in profound ways. This article aims to shed light on these two legal processes, governed respectively by Penal Code sections 851.91 and 1203.4, elucidating their unique features and implications.

The Essence of Sealing a Criminal Record

Sealing a criminal record under California’s Penal Code section 851.91 is a remedy that’s specifically tailored for scenarios where an individual has not been convicted. This includes situations where charges were never formally filed, cases that were dismissed, or instances where the defendant was acquitted. The primary goal of sealing is to shield the individual’s record from public access, essentially removing the trace of the legal encounter from public view. It’s a significant measure for those who have faced accusations but ultimately were not found culpable, offering them a chance to avoid the stigma often associated with a criminal record.

Expungement: A Post-Conviction Remedy

Contrasting sharply with sealing is the concept of expungement, detailed in Penal Code section 1203.4. Expungement is applicable post-conviction, meaning it’s a legal recourse available only to those who have been convicted. The process doesn’t erase the record as sealing does; instead, it alters the record to reflect that the conviction has been set aside. While expungement offers a form of legal forgiveness, it doesn’t completely obscure the record from public view. This distinction is particularly noteworthy as it highlights the expungement’s role as a tool for rehabilitation and reintegration, rather than a complete erasure of one’s legal missteps.

Different Roads with Significant Impact

Both sealing and expungement play pivotal roles in the lives of individuals seeking to move beyond their past legal challenges, particularly in the private employment sector. While sealing offers a clean slate for those unjustly accused or exonerated, expungement provides a second chance for those who have fulfilled their legal obligations post-conviction. Employers in California are generally prohibited from considering expunged convictions in their hiring decisions, underscoring the practical significance of these remedies in the realm of employment and social reintegration.

Navigating the Legal Landscape

For individuals seeking to clear their names or move past a conviction, understanding the nuances between sealing and expungement is crucial. It’s not merely about finding the right legal pathway but also about recognizing the implications each process carries for one’s personal and professional life. In California, navigating these legal processes requires careful consideration and, often, the guidance of knowledgeable legal professionals.


In conclusion, while sealing and expungement are terms frequently used interchangeably, they stand for distinct legal remedies under California law. Sealing is a form of legal vindication for those who have been accused but not convicted, while expungement serves as a means of legal redemption for those who have served their sentence. Both processes offer significant benefits, particularly in the context of employment, and understanding their differences is key for anyone looking to turn over a new leaf following an encounter with the criminal justice system.

If you have been charged with a crime and are seeking legal representation, contact the Law Offices of John D. Rogers to schedule a consultation with an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney.

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