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FAQ: Sealing Your Washington Court Record

What's included in my court record?

Your “court record” consists of all the physical documents and electronically stored information and files associated with your case in a particular court.   

The court record also consists of the “case docket,” which contains basic information about the case.  This includes the case number, the criminal charge, the assigned court, your attorney's name, the prosecutor's information, the judge for each hearing, and a summary of what happened at each hearing.

For example:  You were charged with DUI in Snohomish County District Court.  You went to trial and a jury found you guilty.  Your court record would include the following documents:

  • Criminal complaint
  • The probable cause statement (i.e. a summarized version of the police report)
  • Jury instructions
  • Trial exhibits
  • The judgment and sentence form (i.e. which describes your sentence)
  • Any other documents filed during the case

Court records are generally open to the public.  The public and court can access and review court records using online databases such as the Judicial Information System (JIS) and the Superior Court Management Information System (SCOMIS).

What's not included in my court record?

  • The judge's personal notes, emails, or draft pleadings about the case
  • Law enforcement reports that have been entered into the court record, even if the court has access to these documents
  • The prosecutor's case file, including emails, reports, notes, correspondence, and other documents

What happens when my court record is sealed?

If a judge seals your court record, the public cannot access any part of your court record.

Can I get my entire court file sealed?

Although your “court records” are sealed, the existence of your court file is still available to the public. 

But the information available is limited.  For a criminal case, the only viewable information is the case number, the criminal charge, whether an offense was classified as “domestic violence” and the notation “case sealed.” 

Will my sealed record still show up on a criminal background check?

An FBI or state background check would only reveal your name and case number, but no other information.

Example:  You were convicted of robbery in 1998 and spent time in jail.  You later get your robbery conviction sealed.  If a prospective employer ran a background check on you, he or she would find your name and a case number associated with the robbery case but nothing else—not the name of the charge or the fact you went to jail. 

Of course, keep in mind that sealing your court record does not automatically impact records in the hands of a private company.

Example:  Same facts as above, but you applied for a job before getting your robbery conviction sealed.  At employer's request, Private Company A runs a background check on you and stores all the records on its electronic servers. 

You then apply for a different job after getting your robbery conviction sealed.  If new prospective employer uses Private Company A to run background checks, the new employer will have access all the records surrounding your robbery.   

You will need to contact private companies directly and have them update your legal status showing a sealed conviction. 

How does a court decide whether to seal a court record?

To decide whether to grant your motion to seal, the judge will consider the so-called Ishigawa factors.  This test comes from a Washington Supreme Court case that analyzed how judges should decide these motions.  There are five factors:

  • There has to be a serious and imminent threat to an important interest (i.e. job or housing)
  • Anyone present in court must be given chance to object to your motion to seal
  • Sealing your court record must be the only viable way to protect the important interest
  • Your need to seal outweighs the public's interest right to view and access your file
  • The period of time for which sealing will be in effect must be specified (i.e. permanent or for a set period of time)

What's the process for filing a motion to seal?

First, you have the file a motion with the proper Court and request a hearing.  Then, you have to send a copy to the prosecutor's office and to the victim (if applicable). 

You must also notify the probation department (if you are on probation) or the Department of Corrections (if you are under DOC supervision). 

Who can file motion to seal?

Under GR 15, you can obviously file a motion to seal your criminal record but so can the court or any “interested person.”  Under Washington law, an “interested person” is someone who has a direct financial interest.  This could be, for instance, the victim of an assault case or your power of attorney if you were incapacitated. 

Should I file a motion to vacate my conviction before I file a motion to seal my criminal record?

Yes.  Technically, you do not have to vacate your misdemeanor or felony conviction before trying to seal your record.  But the chances of prevailing without doing so are slim to none. 

Here's why: 

Under GR 15, the court must find that sealing your records is justified by “compelling privacy or safety concerns” that outweigh the public's right to access your records.  Having an already vacated conviction is one such “sufficient privacy or safety concern” under GR 15. 

Furthermore, one of the Ishigawa factors is that sealing your court record must be the “least restrictive means” necessary to protect your interest.  If your case has already been vacated (i.e. dismissed), then you are pursuing the least restrictive means available to you. 

Can I get my court record expunged?

No.  In Washington you cannot get your court records expunged (i.e. destroyed or deleted).  You can only expunge non-conviction “criminal history records,” which are in the hands of law enforcement.  These records are different than “court records,” which are maintained by the courts.

If the court denies my motion to seal, what can I do?

You can appeal a denial of your motion to the next highest court (i.e. the Court of Appeals if the Superior Court denies your motion). 

The standard on appeal is “abuse of discretion.”  That means the appeals court will only reverse the trial judge if the judge had no legal basis to deny your motion.  This is a high burden because the standard isn't whether the judge made the best decision—only whether the decision had some legal basis.

Can my sealed record be unsealed?

Yes, but only if the court finds “compelling circumstances” under GR 15 to unseal your court record.

If the government files a motion to unseal your record, you have to be notified and be given a chance to appear in court to object to the motion. 

Do I need an attorney to get my court record sealed?

Getting your record sealed is a difficult hurdle, and the law is pretty technical.    

Of course, with enough reading and research, you may feel comfortable filing a motion to seal by yourself.  But you need to consider whether you're willing to risk making a mistake when so much is on the line. 

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