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Sealing and Expunging Criminal Records in Iowa

Criminal records summarize an individual’s illegal activities and interactions with agencies in the criminal justice system. While a criminal record does provide definitive proof of guilt, as determined after a trial or plea, the record in itself is not enough. Court records on criminal cases also provide a broader perspective of the individual’s criminal activities within Iowa’s jurisdiction.

In Iowa, criminal records refer to both records that the Iowa judiciary maintains and records that law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies maintain. While it is typically hard to seal or expunge criminal records in Iowa, it is possible. Usually, interested individuals employ the services of an experienced attorney. Nevertheless, anyone with the right information, or how to find it, can complete the procedure.

The Difference Between Sealing and Expunging Criminal Records

Sealing and expungement mean the same thing in Iowa: the removal of a record from public access. However, Iowa laws do not allow for the physical obliteration of a record after expungement. Per Section 907.1 of the Iowa Code, expungement refers to the segregation of a criminal record to a secure area or database exempted from public access. There is, however, a slight difference in the usage of the terms. Per Section 232.150, sealing refers to juvenile convictions, while expungement refers to adult convictions according to Section 901C.

Records that are considered public may be accessible from some third-party websites. These websites often make searching more straightforward, as they are not limited by geographic location, and search engines on these sites may help when starting a search for specific or multiple records. To begin using such a search engine on a third-party or government website, interested parties usually must provide:

  • The name of the person involved in the record, unless said person is a juvenile
  • The location or assumed location of the record or person involved. This includes information such as the city, county, or state that the person resides in or was accused in.

Third-party sites are independent of government sources and are not sponsored by these government agencies. Because of this, record availability on third-party sites may vary.

Eligibility Requirements to Expunge a Criminal Record in Iowa

Expungement did not apply to criminal convictions in Iowa until 2019 when the Senate passed SF 589. Per the Act, requirements for expungement depend on the nature of the case. Thus, the requirements for the expungement of misdemeanors differ from the requirements to expunge criminal records of not-guilty verdicts. The interested individual must refer to Section 901C for the applicable requirements. Nevertheless, these requirements are common to both circumstances:

  • The court had issued an acquittal or dismissed the charges;
  • The petition to expunge was filed after a statutory period has elapsed;
  • The individual has no pending criminal charges as of the date of application;
  • The individual has not received two (2) deferred judgments up to date;
  • The individual has paid all levies including court costs, fees, fines, restitution;
  • The individual has fulfilled all other financial obligations ordered by the court or assessed by the clerk of the district court;
  • The court had not adjudged the individual as incompetent to stand trial;
  • The court had not dismissed the case on the grounds of insanity or mental disorder;

How to Expunge a Criminal Record in Iowa

In most cases, Iowa courts do not grant petitions to expunge criminal convictions. A court will only consider requests to expunge non-conviction criminal records; or cases where the court had dismissed the case or issued a not-guilty verdict. To initiate the process, submit an application to expunge at the Clerk of Courts’ office where the case was tried. The clerk shall provide systematic instructions that may apply to the procedure. However, as they cannot give legal advice, it is the individual’s responsibility to follow the letter’s official guidelines.

For misdemeanor expungement, the court will schedule a hearing date, and the individual shall serve a copy of the motion upon the prosecutor involved in the case. During the hearing, the prosecutor shall have the opportunity to object to the motion to expunge. The presiding judge will consider several factors in determining whether to grant the expungement. Chief among these are the basis of the prosecutor’s objection, the individual’s reasons for expungement, the individual’s eligibility, and the public’s right to access the record.

Bear in mind that every eligible person can only expunge one record in a lifetime. However, if several misdemeanors stem from the same offense, the individual can apply for multiple expungements.

How to Seal a Criminal Record in Iowa

As mentioned earlier, sealing refers to juvenile convictions. Iowa courts automatically file a motion to seal juvenile criminal records after two years or after the individual attains eighteen years old. Conversely, in cases where the crime did not result in adjudication, the individual must file a petition to seal manually. After that, the court shall schedule a hearing date where the judge will decide the merits of the petition based on factors outlined in Section 232.150 of the Iowa Code.

The individual must initiate the county or city process where the case was filed and tried. If successful, the state court administrator shall direct all agencies and persons who are custodians of the record to send the records to the court. The custodians must then delete all indexed references to the sealed record and inform public requesters that the record does not exist. However, according to subsection 6 of the same statute, the court may grant individual access to sealed records and disclose the contents for bona fide research purposes. In this case, the court will establish the conditions of inspection and disclosure.

What Crimes Can Be Sealed or Expunged in Iowa?

Iowa’s expungement laws are relatively nascent, and the laws do not make provisions for the expungement of convicted felonies as of September 2020. Individuals can apply to seal most misdemeanors, but in Subsection 2 of the statute mentioned above, the law explicitly says twenty-five (25) misdemeanors are not eligible for expungement. Some of these include sex offenses, dependent adult elder abuse, stalking, and harassment.

Do Sealed Records Show up In Iowa Background Checks?

No, sealed criminal records do not show up on background checks. It is also illegal for any background check agency, independent or government-funded, to divulge sealed records in their possession without a court order.

Who Can See Sealed Criminal Records in Iowa?

Only the record custodian can see sealed criminal records in Iowa. Like the Department of Public Safety, other private entities and even government agencies must obtain a court order to access sealed criminal records. In certain cases, the court may order that a criminal record be unsealed if need be.

How to Obtain Sealed Records in Iowa

Unless otherwise provided by state statutes, the requester must petition the court to unseal the record before the record custodian shall grant access to such a record. Generally, the requester must demonstrate to the court that unsealing the record is so paramount that it would be a grave injustice contrary to unseal.

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