I often receive calls from people who are surprised to learn that their Washington juvenile criminal records have not been automatically sealed or wiped out. This unwelcome news usually pops up when a person is trying to buy a gun and receives a negative response on the mandatory criminal-history check by NICS, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System operated by the FBI. Fortunately, most people in this position will qualify to have the record sealed by the juvenile court.
There is a persistent myth that once you become an adult, your juvenile criminal history somehow dissolves or evaporates, and ceases to have any consequence. In Washington, at least, it just isn’t so. Juvenile-court records are public records, accessible to anyone who asks, just like any other court record. But for those who qualify, a Washington juvenile record may be sealed by presenting a motion to the court.
A court order to seal a juvenile offender record yields tremendous benefits. To begin with, the sealing order vacates the court’s earlier findings; in other words, it transforms a guilty person into a person who is not guilty. After the sealing order is issued, the person may accurately and legally state that he or she was not convicted. Second, when the motion is properly prepared and all the right people are notified, every agency with a record of the case must seal that record. This includes the court clerk, the juvenile probation office, the Washington Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA operates the juvenile prisons), the Washington State Patrol, and the local police or sheriff’s department which investigated the crime.
By virtue of a 2004 decision by the Washington Court of Appeals, sealing a juvenile record SHOULD have the effect of restoring firearm rights which were terminated as a result of that conviction. Unfortunately, law-enforcement agencies do not share this view, and they regard a sealed juvenile conviction for a felony or domestic-violence misdemeanor as a firearm prohibitor. As of now, sealing a juvenile conviction is not a reliable method of restoring firearm rights. Instead, one must obtain a separate Superior Court order to restore firearm rights.
Qualification to seal a Washington juvenile-court record is relatively simple. The person must:
- Have no pending criminal charges.
- Not be under the requirement to register as a sex offender.
- Have paid court-ordered restitution.
- Not have been convicted of First- or Second-Degree Rape.
- Not have been convicted of Indecent Liberties committed by forcible compulsion.
- Have remained conviction-free for two years (for Class B or C felony, gross misdemeanor, or misdemeanor).
- Have remained conviction-free for five years (for Class A felony).
Washington law does not restrict the number of juvenile conviction records which may be sealed. The county prosecuting attorney must be notified of every request to seal a juvenile record and given an opportunity to check the person’s eligibility and oppose the request if appropriate. Washington prosecutors do not seem eager to oppose sealing requests by eligible persons, and judges seem very willing to wipe out juvenile criminal records for those who qualify.
A juvenile criminal record can be a heavy burden for a person seeking employment, housing, financial aid for education, military enlistment, and a host of other necessities and benefits. According to Washington law, when a juvenile record is sealed, “the proceedings in the case shall be treated as if they never occurred.” It doesn’t get any better than that.
(This post revised April 20, 2017.)