They say that when you represent yourself, you have a fool for a client. Not far from the truth.
Nobody wants a criminal record. It is smart to erase your criminal record if you can. However, some people would rather attempt to complete the process themselves than retain the services of a professional.
Sealing or expunging a criminal record is a legal process. It requires knowledge and skill specific to a criminal attorney. Unfortunately, a lot of people try to save a few bucks by doing it themselves. Huge mistake, and I'll tell you why. In fact, here are the 5 most common mistakes people make when they try to do it themselves:
1. Hiring a lawyer is expensive. Can't I just seal or expunge my record myself?
First off, sealing or expunging a record is not terribly expensive. Most attorneys charge a fee between $500 and $750. Higher fees ($750 or so) typically include the costs of sealing or expunging. The costs (expenses other than the attorneys fees) are $75 for the FDLE filing fee, and usually $42 for the clerk's fee. Different counties may charge a little more for the clerk's fee.
You can seal or expunge your own record if you like. You also have the right to represent yourself if charged with murder. You can also replace your own transmission, do your own plumbing, and perform your own root canal. Doesn't mean you should. If the fees were excessive, it would be understandable. However, the relatively nominal fees that attorneys charge for sealing or expunging a record cover everything including preparation and execution of the documents; submission of the documents to all parties (State Attorney, FDLE, Clerk of Courts); monitoring of the process; correspondence and updates with FDLE; execution of all payments; preparation and filing of the petition supporting affidavits, and order; and the court appearance where the judge hears the petition. That's about 8 hours of attorney time, which if billed by the hour can top $2,400. $500 for 8 hours of professional attention to a process that will result in the absence of a public criminal record is worth it.
2. Sealing or expunging a record is easy. I just sign my name, file some papers, and pay a $75 fee. I don't need a lawyer to do that.
Sealing or expunging a record is not easy. It is a complex legal process that takes, on average, 3-6 months to complete if done correctly.
The process involves the assistance of many government agencies. And when you're dealing with the government, you know that one mistake and your application can be sent back for correction or denied. If returned to you, the process will be delayed as your application now goes to the bottom of the pile. If denied, you must file an appeal, which is an even more complex legal process that requires detailed knowledge of criminal and administrative law.
3. I applied to seal or expunge my record many years ago. I got a certificate of eligibility sent to me and I put it somewhere. I can still file a petition with the court at anytime, right?
Wrong. Certificates of eligibility - the certified document from FDLE that tells the court you are eligible to have your record sealed or expunged - is valid for one calendar year after the issue date. A valid certificate of eligibility is the necessary document. Without it, you cannot seal or expunge your record. You must apply to FDLE for a new one. The problem is, FDLE only issues one if your lifetime. To say that you have to jump through hoops to get a new one is an understatement.
I have seen a lot of people destroy their chances of sealing or expunging their records because they tried to complete the process on their own and did not know about the time requirements. Letting a certificate of eligibility sit in your desk drawer for over a year requires you to start the process over. And since FDLE has a record that they have previously issued you a certificate, they may not issue you another one.
4. My fingerprints are already on file. I don't need to supply FDLE with new ones.
Every application to seal or expunge your record must be accompanied by fingerprints. These fingerprints must be on an FDLE-approved fingerprint card and must be taken by a law enforcement agency. Just because your fingerprints are on file with a police agency, federal agency, or military branch does not absolve you of the requirement to get your fingerprints taken when you seal or expunge your record. Your application will be returned to you and the process delayed if you do not submit new fingerprints in accordance with FDLE regulations.
5. There is no court appearance involved in the sealing or expungement process. I don't need a lawyer.
Sealing or expunging is a judicial process. FDLE can determine your eligibility, but only a judge in the court in which your case was heard can order your record sealed or expunged. The decision rests exclusively in the hands of the judge. A judge can grant or deny the petition despite FDLE's issuance of a certificate of eligibility.
Remember, all FDLE is doing is running a complete background check to ensure that you have no convictions and that you have never sealed or expunged a record before. It is the court that will actually sign the order telling FDLE, the police departments, the clerk's office, and state attorney's office to destroy your criminal record.
So yes, a court appearance is involved. That's what your lawyer is there for.
Eric Matheny is an attorney serving Florida regarding sealing or expunging criminal records.