Expunged Realities: Handling Sealed Records in Background Investigations

In today’s digital age, background checks have become an essential part of the hiring process, tenant screening, and various other situations where individuals’ histories need to be assessed. However, not all information is readily available for public consumption. Sealed records, in particular, pose a challenge in background investigations. 

Understanding the nuances of sealed records and their impact on background searches is crucial to ensure accurate and comprehensive results. In this article, we will delve into the concept of sealed records, who can access them, and how they may affect background search sites.

What are Sealed Records?

Sealed records refer to criminal records legally restricted from public access. When a record is sealed, it is effectively hidden from the general public, landlords, schools, licensing boards, and most employers who do not use FBI background checks. 

Sealing a criminal record allows individuals to deny its existence when asked by the parties above. However, there are exceptions to this rule, which we will explore later.

Accessing Your Sealed Records

While sealed records are not visible to the public, individuals still have access to their own full criminal records, including the cases that have been sealed. 

To obtain a record of your sealed cases, you can visit the clerk of courts in your local courthouse and request your complete record. Alternatively, you can order an “Access and Review” from the Pennsylvania State Police, although this process may take several months. 

Additionally, you can view the criminal history information available to the general public by searching your name on The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania’s website.

Limited Situations Where Sealed Records Can Be Seen

Although sealed records are generally inaccessible, there are certain circumstances where they can be seen and used. Law enforcement purposes, such as police investigations, prosecutions, and criminal courts, have access to sealed records. 

Sealed records may also be considered in gun ownership and use applications, immigration processes, international travel, and other court cases like dependency, custody, or protection from abuse cases. 

Furthermore, admission to the bar to become a lawyer and limited situations where federal law requires a background check for employment may warrant the consideration of sealed records. It is important to note that FBI records will show sealed cases when required by federal law.

Exceptions to Denying Sealed Records

While individuals with sealed records are generally permitted to deny their existence, this rule has certain exceptions. Jobs that require FBI background checks, such as schools, police departments, and positions involving regular contact with children, may have access to sealed records. 

Similarly, jobs in fields like caregiving for older adults, banking, airports and seaports (especially for screeners or employees with access to secured areas), casinos, insurance and securities industries, and commercial driver’s licenses with HAZMAT endorsements may also be able to consider sealed records during the hiring process. 

It is crucial to be aware of these exceptions and be prepared to provide evidence of sealing, such as sealing orders or an “Access and Review” from the State Police.

Expungement as a Solution

If sealed records continue to cause problems or if your job requires FBI background checks, seeking expungement may be a viable option. Expungement is a legal process that clears a conviction from your criminal record. It goes a step further than sealing by completely erasing the record, ensuring it does not appear on any background checks

Expungement eligibility varies depending on factors such as case outcomes, completion of diversion programs, summary offenses, age, and the absence of arrests for a certain period. Consulting with a criminal defense lawyer and understanding your state’s expungement laws can help determine if expungement is a viable option for you.

Understanding Background Checks and Sealed Records

Background checks are integral to various aspects of our lives, including employment, housing, and volunteer opportunities. While sealed records should not appear on most basic background checks, it is essential to understand the limitations and exceptions. 

Different types of background checks may include county and state criminal records, federal criminal records, warrants, international criminal records, sex offender registries, and adult protective services records. In most cases, sealed records should be destroyed or moved from the public record, making them inaccessible to background search sites.

Your Rights and Responsibilities

As an individual with sealed records, it is important to know your rights and responsibilities. In New York State, for example, most employers and licensing agencies are prohibited from asking about or discriminating against sealed convictions. 

Exceptions include applications for firearm licenses, positions as police officers or peace officers, jobs in law enforcement agencies, federal government positions, and jobs or licenses regulated by the federal government. 

When an employer or licensing agency not covered by an exception asks about criminal convictions, individuals with sealed records can answer “no” if all convictions have been sealed or disclose only the unsealed conviction if applicable. If an employer or agency unlawfully denies employment or takes action based on undisclosed sealed convictions, legal assistance may be sought to protect your rights.

Accessing Your Sealed Records: A Personal Right

Individuals generally have the right to access their own sealed records. While expunged records may have been destroyed, sealed records can be requested from the court. Additionally, many states provide public access to unsealed records through their court computer systems. 

By searching your name, you can gain insight into what may show up on background checks accessible to the public. It is important to be proactive in understanding your own record and the information available to others.

The Internet and Criminal Records

Despite the sealing or expungement of records, the internet can pose challenges in terms of maintaining privacy. Online news articles or other digital sources may perpetuate information related to past arrests and convictions, even if the record itself has been sealed or expunged. 

While efforts should be made to pursue sealing or expungement, individuals should be aware that online presence may persist. Monitoring and controlling personal information online can help mitigate any potential negative impacts.

Seeking Legal Assistance

If you encounter issues with private background check companies accessing and utilizing expunged records, it may be a violation of state or federal law. Seeking the guidance of a criminal defense attorney can help ensure that your record has been properly expunged and protect your rights. These professionals can provide valuable advice and assistance in navigating the complexities of sealed records and background checks.

The Importance of Background Search Sites

Background search sites play a crucial role in providing comprehensive and accurate information for individuals and organizations conducting background checks. While sealed records may pose challenges in obtaining complete records, reputable search sites strive to deliver the most up-to-date and reliable information available within legal boundaries. 

The responsibility lies with both individuals and search site providers to understand the nuances of sealed records and ensure the integrity of background checks.


In conclusion, sealed records have implications for background search sites, employers, and individuals alike. It is vital to understand the process of sealing records, the exceptions to denying their existence, and the potential impact on background checks. 

By staying informed and seeking legal assistance with News & Observer, individuals can navigate the complexities of sealed records and make informed decisions based on accurate information. Background search sites continue to play a crucial role in providing transparency and reliability in background investigations, ensuring a fair and comprehensive assessment of individuals’ histories.