A criminal record can be a major roadblock on the path towards a good job, housing, dating, and many other essential areas of life. The good news for many people with a Texas criminal record is that there are legal ways to clear those criminal records and prevent them from being roadblocks.
A search of the internet shows that most attorneys charge between $1,000 and $3,000 to perform a criminal record expungement in Texas, and that does not include the filing fees and court costs, which often exceed $300.
The two main ways to clear a record are through expunction or orders of non-disclosure. These two legal remedies are more commonly called expungement and record sealing. “The eligibility requirements are different for each, but the benefits are very similar,” says attorney Mathew Higbee, whose law firm has handled hundreds of Texas record clearing cases and thousands nationwide.
“Expungement and record sealing are both effective ways to help someone with a criminal record move on with their life,” said Higbee. While dealing with the court system and legal process can be frustrating, Higbee says the average person can do it themselves. “It just takes lots of time, patience, and willingness to make a few mistakes and not quit,” said Higbee.
1. FIND OUT IF YOU ARE ELIGIBLE FOR EXPUNGEMENT OR RECORD SEALING
Determining what relief, if any, a person with a criminal record is eligible for can be a bit tricky for someone without legal expertise. However, many websites, like the one operated by Higbee’s law firm, offer a free online eligibility test. Many attorneys will provide a free initial consultation over the phone. Both options can provide a free answer and have no obligations associated with them.
According to the Daniel Harris, who publishes an expungement site for former offenders in Texas, some offenses are never eligible for expungement or record sealing: “Unless you get a pardon first, any offenses that ended in parole, probation, prison or jail will not be eligible.”
EXPERT TIP. If your case needs to be pardoned before you apply for expungement, the website Pardon411.com has free information about applying for a pardon in Texas, including where to get free help.
2. GET THE RIGHT FORMS
Expungement and record sealing are done in the court where the case occurred (or, in the case of an expungement, would have occurred). Most courts have forms, and sometimes instruction packets, for filing your own expungement and non-disclosure. Even better, many courts have the forms online for free. If the form isn’t online, you can go to the court and pick up a copy, or call in and request that they send you one via mail.
3. GET YOUR CASE INFORMATION
Completing the forms provided by the court will require entering information about your arrest and court case, if there was one. There are a few sources for criminal records information in Texas. Sometimes, especially with older cases, a person must check multiple sources to find all of the necessary information. The main source is the Texas Department of Public Safety. Texas law gives a person the right to have a copy of their criminal record obtained by the Texas Department of Public Safety.  Obtaining the record from the DPS costs about $24.95 and requires getting fingerprinted. Instructions on getting fingerprinted and getting the TXDPS report can be found on the TXDPS website.
If your TXDPS report does not have all of the required information needed for the forms, you may need to contact the court. Most courts and arresting agencies in Texas will not provide the information over the phone or online, so a person is left with the option of doing a written records request (which can cost about $10 to $20), or going into the court or arresting agency to review the documents in person.
4. REVIEWING YOUR DOCUMENTS PRIOR TO FILING THEM
This is a crucial step. Failure to properly review your documents prior to filing can result in incomplete or inaccurate forms being submitted, which can then result in your petition being returned by the court, which costs you valuable time and sometimes money (courts sometimes keep the filing fees).
EXPERT TIP. Have a friend or family member review your documents for completeness and accuracy. Or, even better, contact a legal aid center or public defender’s office and ask them if they can take a few minutes to review your forms before you submit them.
“Texas has many outstanding sources of free or low cost legal assistance,” says Daniel Harris, a job counselor who assists former offenders in Texas. “These sources are not always fast, but a person who is patient can usually find good, low cost or free help in Texas,” said Harris.
Free or low-cost sources of legal assistance in Texas:
Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas
Program Phone: (817) 649-4740
Legal Assistance: (800) 955-3959
Lone Star Legal Aid
Program Phone: (713) 652-0077
Legal Assistance: (800) 354-1889
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc.
Program Phone: (956) 447-4800
Legal Assistance: (888) 988-9996
Texas Indigent Defense Commission
5. OBTAINING THE COURT HEARING DATE
Once you have filed your petition for expungement or nondisclosure, the court will notify you by mail when your court hearing date will be. If you do not hear anything from the court within 14 days of your petition being filed, call them, or visit the court and ask when you will be notified of the court hearing.
EXPERT TIP. If you do not receive notice of your hearing date by the estimated time, the court and keep calling them every two weeks until you receive the hearing date. You do not want to miss your court date because the notice of hearing was lost in the mail.
EXPERT TIP. If you have the option of choosing a date for your hearing, Higbee says to choose a Friday. Court personnel and judges are generally in a better mood on Fridays. “It is a simple fact- everybody is happier on Friday,” said Higbee.
6. ATTENDING THE HEARING
The hearing is more than a formality. The judge often has considerable discretion on whether or not to grant your request to expunge or seal your record. Be prepared to tell the judge how expunction will help you and your family. Common reasons that judges like to hear are (1) clearing your record will help you obtain a job for which you are trained and qualified, (2) it will increase your chances of being approved for a professional license, and (3) it will increase your chances of being accepted into a school or training program.
Also, be prepared to answer questions about any arrests or brushes with the law that may have recently occurred. Of course, always be polite, respectful, and punctual.
Having a Texas criminal record cleared can be a life changing experience.While it may be easier and faster to have a licensed attorney handle the matter for you, those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer should not be afraid to follow these steps and do it themselves.