Being charged with a criminal offense can have significant and long-lasting negative effects. As criminal defense attorney Rebecca Wade explains, having a criminal record can make the process of applying for a job or school, or trying to get a security clearance significantly more difficult — which is why it’s important to know your legal options when it comes to expungement.

“Unfortunately in Virginia, you can’t expunge convictions,” Wade explains, “you can only expunge arrests, so the first thing to look at is whether or not the crime is a conviction.” If you haven’t been convicted, you may be eligible to get the charge expunged from your record.

For example, let’s say you are charged with shoplifting but are found not guilty. If a prospective employer were to run a criminal background check on you, that shoplifting charge would still appear even though you were found not guilty. This is a situation where it would be largely beneficial to expunge the charge from your record.

Wade explains that in order to expunge a charge, you need to file a petition in the Circuit Court and prove to the judge that having the charge appear on your record is a manifest injustice. By statute, if you have no other criminal record and the charge is a misdemeanor, the court should presume that there is an injustice and likely issue you the expungement.

“Now, there are exceptions to the general rule that convictions cannot be expunged in Virginia,” Wade says. For example, let’s say you are stopped for shoplifting but based on a plea agreement you’re ultimately convicted of an unrelated crime, like disorderly conduct. You may be able to expunge the fact that the initial charge was for shoplifting. Getting that charge expunged could make a big impact since a prospective employer may be more concerned with a shoplifting charge compared to disorderly conduct.

“These situations are not cut and dry,” Wade explains, “and the avenues you can take to get your record expunged in Virginia are very limited compared to what’s available in other states.” If you’re looking to clean up your record, it’s crucial to consult an experienced attorney, who knows the in’s and out’s of Virginia’s expungement laws.