A criminal record often gives rise to significant barriers to gainful employment, affordable housing, family
unification, and a variety of other benefits and opportunities essential to productive citizenship. For assistance in understanding the statutory barriers to opportunities that may arise due to a specific criminal record, please use the UNC School of Government’s Collateral Consequences Assessment Tool.
In North Carolina, an expunction is the destruction of a criminal record by court order. An expunction (also called an “expungement”) of a criminal record restores the individual, in the view of the law, to the status he or she occupied before the criminal record existed. With a few exceptions, when an individual is granted an expunction, he or she may truthfully and without committing perjury or false statement deny or refuse to acknowledge that the criminal incident occurred. The primary exception to this is for purposes of federal immigration. Please see North Carolina General Statutes §15A-151 for other exceptions.
Prior to 2011, opportunities to expunge a criminal record in North Carolina were extremely limited. However, legislators have significantly expanded expunction opportunities over the last decade. As of December 1, 2021, criminal records eligible for expunction in North Carolina are generally limited to the following categories:
• Up to three “non-violent” felony convictions*1
• One or multiple “non-violent” misdemeanor convictions*
• A first-time conviction of certain offenses committed before age 18/22
• One or multiple convictions of certain offenses committed before age 18 that occurred before December 1, 2019*
• All charges that are dismissed or disposed “not guilty”*
• A conviction that was the result of being the victim of human trafficking.
This summary provides details about sixteen expunction statutes. Also included in this summary are answers to frequently asked questions regarding terms, interpretations, and procedures that frequently arise in petitioning for relief under North Carolina’s expunction laws.
The primary goal of this expunction guide is to increase access to expunction relief for North Carolinians with criminal records by providing members of the North Carolina bar with the information necessary to practice in this area of law. Most individuals eligible for expunction relief do not obtain it. The number of expunction orders in FY 2020-2021 is displayed below and startlingly small relative to the estimated 25 percent of adults in our state with a criminal record. If you are an attorney and find this guide helpful, I urge you to consider assisting low-income North Carolinians with pro bono or reduced-fee legal services.
- For purposes of expunctions, “nonviolent” is defined in NCGS 15A-145.5(a), which delineates a list of charges that are not eligible for expunction. Rather than refer to the charges listed in NCGS 15A-145.5(a) as “violent”, the NC Justice Center chooses to refer to them as “disqualified” and “disqualifying”. Not all of the charges in this list are, in fact, “violent”, and we believe that changing the terminology is a first step in changing the narrative of the criminal justice system.