Crimes are classified by their severity: misdemeanors are minor issues that generally do not require a jury trial because they are punishable by a year in jail or less (frequently a fine and probation), but felonies are serious crimes that are tried by attorneys in a courthouse because the stakes are much higher. Each type of crime will end up on a person's permanent record, but felonies are considered significant crimes that can impact a wide range of personal and professional opportunities whereas misdemeanors generally carry none of these consequences.
Juvenile records, which are generally sealed from the public due to the age of the person charged, may be released and made available if a charge is at the felony level, particularly if it is a violent offense.
Felony crimes may include robbery, murder, counterfeiting, rape, assault with a deadly weapon, threatening an official, and kidnaping. The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony is oftentimes left to the judgement of the presiding official. Misdemeanors that are perpetrated with violence (threat or force) can be considered as felonies while serious crimes without psychological trauma to the victims may be downplayed to a misdemeanor.
Similarly, subsequent offenses can be upgraded to felony level: one D.U.I. may be a misdemeanor, but multiple D.U.I. charges can result in a felony-level charge.
Felony records, like any criminal records, are considered public documents unless a judge has specifically sealed the information due to the age of the defendant or other extenuating circumstances. It is possible to request records of any felony to be sealed but several hurdles must be cleared for that to happen.
Expungement of Felony Records
If a sentence has been served for a felony conviction, a petition may be filed in most states to expunge or seal the felony record from public view. That allows the person involved to legally and truthfully say it never happened – unless the law in their state has specific rules about it. Many states also require a certain period of time to be passed before the petition may be filed, and that can be as long as 10 years after the sentence has been served. Not every state allows expungement or sealing of a felony record.
Once a petition for expungement is filed, a judge may require a hearing in court that is a public event similar to a probation hearing.
In California, even expunged felony convictions can be used against a person under the state's "three strikes" law. There, three felonies guarantee a prison sentence, even if one or more has been expunged.
The state of Georgia will allow a felony conviction to be sealed from public view after a specific process is followed but does not allow traditional expungement, or removal of the conviction from a person's record.
New Jersey limits expungements to those individuals with a limited criminal history. Those with two or more indictable offenses on their record may not be eligible for expungement.
Many states do not allow crimes against children or sexual offenses to be expunged.