Steps For Expunging A Nonviolent Drug Charge

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on

Some people in recovery experience setbacks due to mistakes that they made before getting sober. If you have a nonviolent criminal drug charge, getting your record expunged can help you move forward.

How To Expunge A Nonviolent Drug Charge

Addiction recovery opens a world of possibilities. For many people who heal from drug abuse, recovery brings possibilities that were unattainable while they were using drugs.

However, people who have committed drug-related crimes may find those opportunities limited, making it difficult to move forward after addiction.

Even a nonviolent drug charge can have long-lasting consequences. It may impact everything from housing options to loan opportunities.

Fortunately, a process called expungement can restore many of the opportunities that drug charges take away.

What Is Expungement?

Expungement is the process of eliminating criminal records, and it can provide a fresh start for people who are ready to heal and move forward.

Some records may still be available to judges and other government officials. For example, even an expunged charge may be taken into consideration if the person is convicted of another crime.

However, expungement does remove records from public access. Potential employers, landlords, and loan providers do not have access to expunged records.

When a criminal record is expunged, the person does not have to disclose that they have been convicted of a crime.

Expungement laws vary by state, so be sure to check the specific regulations for your location.

Expungement Vs. Sealing

Some sources may use the terms “expungement” and “sealing” interchangeably, but these terms have subtle differences.

While expungement eliminates a criminal record entirely, a sealed record still exists, but it becomes confidential.

When a record is sealed, it still remains inaccessible to the public, much like an expunged record.

However, a court order may reopen the record, and the record remains available to law enforcement officers.

Some states, according to the American Bar Association, seal rather than destroy criminal records. In these states, the word “expungement” may be used to describe the sealing process.

What Is A Nonviolent Drug Charge?

Nonviolent drug charges can include both misdemeanors and felonies. They concern the possession, misuse, or selling of substances.

Nonviolent charges are charges for crimes that did not harm or use force against another person, and as a result, they are generally eligible for expungement.

Violent crimes, in contrast, are not eligible for this process.

Nonviolent Misdemeanor Drug Charges

Misdemeanors are considered “lesser crimes” when compared to felonies, though they are more serious than infractions.

In many states, misdemeanors are crimes that can be punished with 12 or fewer months of jail time.

Most nonviolent drug misdemeanors concern simple possession, which is knowingly possessing or exchanging a controlled substance.

Nonviolent Felony Drug Charges

Felonies are considered more serious crimes than misdemeanors, and they carry longer sentences as a result.

Nonviolent drug crimes that result in felony charges include:

  • possessing larger amounts of certain substances, such as methamphetamine drugs
  • distribution or attempted distribution of drugs
  • obtaining controlled substances via fraud
  • using a phone to organize a drug transaction
  • leading an organization that sells drugs
  • maintaining a facility that produces illegal drugs
  • drug trafficking or attempted drug trafficking

Why Expungement Is Important: Common Civil Restrictions Of Drug Charges

Addiction recovery takes focus and hard work, and it requires a lot of motivation. For many, that source of motivation is regaining all of the opportunities that they’ve lost to substance abuse.

However, a criminal record can limit opportunities, closing doors that may have otherwise been opened by sobriety.

Often, people see addiction treatment as getting a fresh start, and when that fresh start is denied, they may feel hopeless and frustrated.

Expungement can return many of these opportunities, allowing people to live and work as if they had never been convicted.

Housing Opportunities

A criminal record can limit housing opportunities. For example, landlords often screen potential tenants using criminal background checks.

Potential tenants are sometimes denied housing based on their criminal records, even if their previous crimes do not indicate that they will be a danger to other tenants.

These housing limits can become especially concerning for people in recovery from drug abuse, as an unstable living environment is a risk factor for addiction and relapse.

When a record is expunged, however, neither landlords nor third-party agencies can see those records when running background checks.

As a result, the person with the expunged record may access more stable housing, which can support their continued sobriety.

Employment Prospects

Like landlords, employers conduct background checks when screening job applicants. Applications may also ask job seekers whether they have been convicted of a crime.

Should a criminal charge appear on a background check, that applicant may lose the job opportunity if the employer believes that their crime makes them a risk for the job.

As a result, criminal records reduce people’s earning potential. People with a criminal record often report a lower income than people who do not have a record.

Because poverty is another risk factor for substance abuse, this lack of employment opportunities may cause significant challenges for a person in recovery from addiction.

However, employers are not able to access expunged records, which can increase job opportunities for people who have had their records erased.

Furthermore, a person with an expunged record can legally answer “no” when asked if they have been convicted of a crime.

Qualifying For Loans

A criminal record can limit a person’s eligibility to obtain loans, including student loans, personal loans, home loans, and many others.

Once again, these limitations occur when criminal charges appear on a background check.

They can also occur when a court denies federal benefits due to drug charges. For example, a student with drug charges may become ineligible for federal financial aid.

Often, people seek loans when they want to improve their lives and make the most of opportunities. For instance, a person may pursue a student loan to obtain a degree, or they may seek a business loan to increase their earning potential.

Without these loans, these life changes are unattainable for many people. For some, these limits can keep them stuck in harmful patterns caused by addiction.

Expungement, on the other hand, can reopen these possibilities, potentially preventing relapse by helping people obtain stability.

Voting Rights

Generally, misdemeanors do not impact a person’s right to vote, unless those misdemeanors involve elections.

In most states, however, felonies do impact voting rights, which means that voting after a criminal conviction is often complicated.

Almost every U.S. state limits people’s ability to vote after a felony conviction, though these limits vary.

Some states limit voting rights for a short probationary period, while other states permanently remove voting rights after a felony.

Expungement, however, can restore voting rights for people who previously had criminal charges.

Imprisonment And Recidivism

People with criminal records often return to prison, creating a vicious cycle. For people who experience drug addiction, this cycle may cause relapse.

According to the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ), recidivism often occurs due to some of the reasons outlined above.

Unstable housing, limited employment options, and similar complications make it difficult for people with criminal records to re-enter society.

For people with drug-related charges, this may result in repeated drug crimes.

For example, if a person was charged with selling drugs, their criminal record may prevent them from future employment, and without employment opportunities, they may return to selling drugs to make ends meet.

Because expungement restores these opportunities, it can prevent recidivism and help individuals break the cycle.

How To Begin The Expungement Process

Expungement is a multi-step process that requires time and patience. However, it can provide a fresh start and improve many areas of a person’s life.

Here you’ll find the steps that can help you with the process.

Collect Drug Charge-Related Documents

First, gather all documents related to your nonviolent drug charges. These may include sentencing documents, police reports, and court transcripts.

Different states may require different documents. If you are unsure of whether you will need a specific document, keep it with your other documents.

If you do not need it, the fact that you have it will not hurt the expungement process. However, if you do need it, not having it can cause delays.

At this time, you might also ask for an expungement request packet from your state district attorney’s office.

Research Expungement Laws In Your State

Because states have different laws regarding expungement, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with your state’s laws.

Once you learn the guidelines for your state, you can tailor the rest of your steps based on those requirements.

Pre-Trial Drug Treatment Pathways

If you have been charged but not yet convicted of a drug-related crime, your state may allow you to participate in an addiction treatment program as an alternative to sentencing.

In these states, courts may drop criminal charges entirely when the individual successfully completes the treatment process.

If you have this option, you may avoid the need for expungement altogether.

However, even if you cannot attend a rehab center in place of a traditional sentence, seeking drug treatment may still help you expunge your records.

Ideal candidates for expungement are people who have a low risk of recidivism. Seeking addiction treatment reveals that you are willing to pursue long-term solutions.

Other reasons to pursue addiction treatment include:

  • addressing physical symptoms of chemical dependency
  • gaining structure
  • learning relapse prevention strategies
  • finding community and support
  • receiving aftercare services for long-term sobriety

Simple Forms For Marijuana-Related Charges

Many states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana. Several of these states offer a simplified expungement process for people with pre-legalization cannabis charges.

If you have a marijuana-related criminal charge, find out if your state has simple forms for the expungement of these charges.

If so, your expungement may take less time and require fewer steps.

Find A Licensed Attorney Offering Free Advice

Generally, it is possible to apply for expungement without an attorney. However, an attorney with expungement expertise can make the process much simpler for you.

Often, expungement documents and requirements are difficult to find, and the language surrounding expungement can become confusing for those who don’t already have legal knowledge.

To make sure that you are taking all the right steps, look for a licensed attorney.

Many attorneys, including attorneys who work for nonprofit legal aid services, offer free or low-cost advice on the expungement process.

Some services hold expungement clinics, which explain the expungement process and help people begin the first steps.

These programs can be helpful, but if you cannot find an upcoming clinic in your area, you can directly contact an attorney who offers free advice at any time.

Be Prepared To Pay Petition Costs

The expungement process includes petition costs, which can vary by state. In many states, these costs amount to roughly $150.

However, some states have very different costs. In a few cases, a person may obtain expungement for much less money.

For instance, in Maryland, a person may file an expungement petition for $30.

However, this is not true of all states. Some have much higher costs. In some southeastern states, for instance, expungement costs can reach $500 or more.

Become aware of your state’s expungement costs so that you do not get caught off-guard.

If you cannot afford the cost of an expungement petition, you may still have options. For instance, some states may offer waivers and other forms of assistance.

When you meet with an attorney, ask them about your choices.

Prepare A Written Testimony With Supportive Evidence

Finally, prepare a written testimony petitioning for expungement.

This written testimony is separate from the petition forms that you may have already completed, and it should demonstrate that you have behaved responsibly since your conviction.

What To Include In Your Written Testimony

In your letter, explain why you need an expungement and what steps you have taken to avoid recidivism, and provide evidence to support your claims.

Essentially, your testimony should demonstrate what makes you a good candidate for expungement.

Evidence may include character references, certifications from drug treatment programs, or other proof of your recovery and responsibility.

How To Approach Your Written Testimony

When you write your testimony, use professional language, such as the kind you would use while applying for a job or writing a school admissions essay.

This writing style can seem intimidating, especially if you rarely use it or have a learning disability.

If you find yourself struggling to write your petition letter, don’t let this frustration prevent you from seeking expungement. You can always seek tips and support.

Some of your options include:

  • asking your attorney about the phrasing of your letter
  • seeking help at a free expungement clinic
  • asking your local library if they offer free writing help
  • finding sample petition letters online and using them for guidance

Note that if you find sample testimonies online, you should not copy them word for word. However, you can use them for examples of formal language and formatting.

How Long The Expungement Process Takes

The expungement process often takes several months to complete, depending on different factors.

For example, some states and counties may have a high workload, which may delay the process. However, in some areas, expungement may take several weeks to two months.

Look up the average timeline for your state to make sure that your expungement length does not take you by surprise.

Reinstating Federal Benefits After Expungement

People with a criminal record may lose access to certain federal benefits.

Some of these benefits include:

  • federal student loans and financial aid
  • various types of licensure
  • business loans
  • contracts with the federal government
  • scientific and academic grants

After having your record expunged, you may have applicable benefits reinstated by submitting a drug offender’s reinstatement of federal benefits form to your county clerk’s office.

Resources For People With Nonviolent Drug Charges In Need Of Expungement

The expungement process can seem confusing and complicated, especially because of the varying laws among U.S. states.

Fortunately, several resources are available to help you through this process.

The following resources can help people understand and complete the expungement process:

These resources inform people with a criminal history of their rights, both before and after having their records expunged:

Here you’ll find resources for people looking for drug and alcohol addiction care:

  • Buprenorphine Treatment Practitioner Locator — The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) helps people find buprenorphine providers for opioid use disorder.
  • FindTreatment.gov — This search tool from SAMHSA helps people find mental health and substance abuse care in their area.
  • IHS Treatment Locator — The Indian Health Service (IHS) offers a directory for Tribal healthcare, including behavioral health services.
  • VA Substance Use Disorder Program — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides a state-by-state directory of veteran addiction treatment.

These resources offer guidance for people within the criminal legal system or behavioral health fields who want to support people who experience substance abuse:

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.

These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on
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