As part of our non-conviction records project, we have researched what state laws provide on law enforcement agency access to and use of sealed or expunged non-conviction records for routine law enforcement purposes. This issue is particularly salient in light of an ongoing lawsuit against the New York Police Department in which a New York state court found that the NYPD’s routine use and disclosure of sealed arrest information—without securing a court order—violates New York’s sealing statute.
Looking across the country, we found an almost even split on this issue: exactly half the states either do not allow law enforcement access to sealed records for routine law enforcement activity, or condition law enforcement access on a court order (as in New York) or formal written request. Specifically, we identified 25 states and two territories that appear to limit law enforcement agency access to and/or use of non-conviction records, either absolutely (12 states and two territories), or without a court order (11 states) or formal written request to the state custodian of records for a specified purpose (two states). The other 25 states, plus two territories, the District of Columbia and the Federal system, exempt law enforcement agencies generally from sealing or expungement laws, or in a few cases have no law authorizing sealing of non-conviction records (American Samoa, the Federal system, and Wisconsin).
Note a couple of things about the way we conducted this research. First, our results apply only to records that do not result in a conviction (though in many states the answer is the same for records that do), and we classified them according to their apparent application to law enforcement operations (some states allow law enforcement agency access for employment and certification purposes). There are a handful of states that bar law enforcement agency access but allow access by prosecutors, both generally (NC) and in specific situations (AR, KS), and we classified these as barring law enforcement access, because the possibility of police access to records through prosecutors is not the kind of unregulated direct access at issue in the New York litigation.
The second thing to note is that our results say nothing about how easy or hard it is to get a non-conviction record sealed or expunged, or who is eligible for this relief. For example, of the states whose laws bar access, New York offers sealing of non-conviction records right at disposition as a routine matter, with the burden on the prosecutor to show why sealing isn’t appropriate (and it is a high bar). Other states in the “no access” or “court order” categories (e.g. Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia) require a defendant to file a separate civil petition after an eligibility waiting period, disqualify based on prior record, require a hearing at which the petitioner has the burden of showing why relief should be granted, and even impose civil filing fees.
Our classification tells a bit more about the scope or effect of sealing/expungement relief in each state more generally, since states that “delete” or “erase” non-conviction records are more likely to specifically bar law enforcement agency access than states that merely limit public access to the record. But even states that provide some public access (e.g., by licensing boards) may also bar access for law enforcement functions (e.g., KS). (Further information about the effect of sealing or expungement relief in each state may be found in the Restoration of Rights Project profiles.)
Our state-by-state research follows.