Relief from a Criminal Conviction (2023 Edition)

General Considerations for Expunctions

Expunction is a procedure by which a person obtains a court order to expunge the record of prior proceedings against him or her. In North Carolina, an expunction means that paper and electronic records of the proceedings are deleted or destroyed with limited exceptions. See infra Overview: Effect of Expunction

The right to obtain an expunction depends on North Carolina statutes. If no statute authorizes an expunction of a conviction, a person generally has no right to one.[1]

Recent studies have found that record clearing mechanisms such as expunctions boosted employment rates and earnings.[2] Legislative changes in the last several years have increased the opportunities for expunction relief in North Carolina, but petitioners still must meet precise statutory conditions to obtain an expunction. The overwhelming number of expunctions are of cases that do not end in a conviction, which this guide refers to for simplicity as dismissals. Although expunctions of convictions have increased, the number remains relatively small. See North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, 2021 Expunctions Report (Sept. 1, 2021).

This guide focuses on the different types of expunctions available in North Carolina for adult criminal court proceedings—that is, proceedings in which a person is prosecuted in criminal court as an adult, including juveniles prosecuted as adults.[3] For a discussion of the criteria for expunctions of delinquency proceedings—that is, proceedings in which a juvenile was alleged to be or adjudicated as delinquent—see infra Expunctions of Delinquency Matters.

A person also may obtain expunctions of records from some civil proceedings if statutorily authorized.[4] A person may obtain an expunction of records of a mental health admission or commitment that occurred when the person was a minor. See Benjamin M. Turnage, John Rubin, & Dorothy T. Whiteside, North Carolina Civil Commitment Manual § 12.6, Expunction of Minors’ Records of Admission and Commitment (UNC School of Government, 2d ed. 2011). A person may obtain an expunction of his or her name from the “responsible individuals list,” a list of people determined by a county Department of Social Services to have abused or seriously neglected a child. See Sara DePasquale & Jan S. Simmons, Abuse, Neglect, Dependency, and Termination of Parental Rights Proceedings in North Carolina § 5.2B.4, Central Registry and Responsible Individuals List—Right to Judicial Review (UNC School of Government, 2022). Other statutes authorizing expunctions include: G.S. 20-13.2(c1) (expunction of revocation of a driver’s license or permit due to ineligibility for a driving eligibility certificate under G.S. 20-11(n)(1) (concerning high school attendance)); G.S. 115C-402 (expunction of school suspension or expulsion); G.S. 115C-109.3 (expunction of incorrect information about student with disability). These procedures are beyond the scope of this guide.

In 2017, a bill was introduced to authorize expunctions of proceedings for domestic violence protective orders under G.S. Chapter 50B. Those provisions were deleted in the second edition of the bill, which directed a study instead. The bill passed the House but did not make it out of committee in the Senate. H.B. 796 (2017).

[1] See State v. Bellar, 16 N.C. App. 339 (1972) (finding that judge had no authority to order destruction of police records in absence of statute but acknowledging possibility that in extraordinary circumstances judge might have such authority); see also Ross v. N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, ___ N.C. App. ___, 861 S.E.2d 30 (2021) (unpublished) (noting that federal district court ordered that the defendant’s state conviction for first-degree murder be expunged from his criminal record to effectuate the federal court’s prior order declaring his conviction null and void)Sealed Appellant v. Sealed Appellee, 130 F.3d 695, 698–99 (5th Cir.1997) (holding that although a person does not have constitutional right to expunction, court has authority to use expunction of records as remedy for violation of person’s rights, such as in previous case of intentionally arresting Black people to prevent them from voting in violation of their rights); Doe v. United States, 110 F. Supp. 3d 448 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (holding that federal courts have equitable authority to order expunction of records of federal criminal proceedings in unusual or extreme cases), rev’d, 833 F.3d 192 (2016) (holding that federal district court lacked jurisdiction to consider motion to expunge conviction); Wheeler v. Goodman, 306 F. Supp. 58 (W.D.N.C. 1969) (finding unconstitutional a North Carolina vagrancy statute used to prosecute hippies and ordering expunction of arrest records), rev’d on other grounds, 401 U.S. 987 (1971). For a discussion of a court’s inherent authority to order expunction of erroneously obtained sex offender registration information, see infra Sex Offender Registration and Monitoring Obligations: General Considerations for Sex Offender Requirements.

[2] See J.J. Prescott & Sonja B. Starr, Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study, 133 Harv. L. Rev. 2460 (2020); Jeffrey Selbin, Justin McCrary & Joshua Epstein, Unmarked? Criminal Record Clearing and Employment Outcomes, 108 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 1 (2018); see also Colleen Chien,  America’s Paper Prisons: The Second Chance Gap, 119 Mich. L. Rev. 519 (2020) (discussing barriers that result in only a small fraction of eligible people obtaining relief).

[3] In addition to the expunctions of adult criminal records discussed in this guide, a criminal defendant may ask the court to expunge a written presentence report, the record of an oral presentence report, or a sentencing plan, which may have detailed personal information about the defendant. See G.S. 15A-1333. Such an order does not expunge the conviction or charges.

[4] As with expunction of criminal proceedings, the courts ordinarily have no authority to expunge court records in civil cases without statutory authorization. See Little v. Bennington, 109 N.C. App. 482 (1993) (finding that trial court had no authority to order expunction of civil contempt order issued by clerk of court for failure to file account for estate property under G.S. 28A-25-4); see also In re Sullivan, 112 N.C. App. 795 (1993) (although board of medical examiners did not have statutory obligation to expunge information from doctor’s records, board has obligation, which is “reasonable and critically important” when records bear on one’s “livelihood,” to maintain records that have factual basis and are accurate; court holds that doctor was entitled to notice and opportunity to be heard on request to expunge information before board acted on it); Fleming v. Mann, 23 N.C. App. 418 (1974) (documents recorded by register of deeds were not clearly excluded from category of documents to be recorded; writ of mandamus to compel expunction of records denied).