Expunging, Sealing and Nondisclosure Orders for Minor and Juvenile Criminal Records in Texas: Part 1

Background checks are becoming an increasingly common part of the application process for major aspects of our lives including employment, housing, credit cards, college admissions and professional licensing. This continues to be true despite efforts of civil rights agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) to push back on the broad use of criminal background checks.

While I believe that certain criminal records can justifiably disqualify an individual from certain jobs, housing and so forth, the broad use of criminal records easily results in people going to the bottom of the pile over unrelated offenses, often even when the person was arrested or ticketed but no conviction occurred.

The effects of these criminal records can be lifelong even when events that lead to the criminal records are long in the past. A criminal record could result in losing employment opportunities or losing out on prestigious college admissions and set back your career for years, maybe even decades.

This is true not only for adult criminal records but also juvenile criminal records (up to age eighteen) and age-related alcohol charges, usually minor in possession.

These juvenile and minor criminal records can be especially significant because they are most likely to occur in the teenage years right before going off to college, trade schools, or into the job market.

Understanding how minors and young adults can protect themselves from the consequences of these records is extremely important and often well worth the effort. This post is the beginning of a five part series of blogs discussing the patchwork of confusing laws and options to seal, expunge and restrict access to juvenile criminal records and under twenty-one alcohol offenses under Texas law.

Basics of Juvenile Criminal Records and Specific Minor (Age-Related) Offense Records in Texas

Under Texas law age plays an important role in the types of offenses that can be charged to a person and how the Texas judicial system resolves those criminal charges.

In Texas a juvenile is generally a person under the age of seventeen, although a person may be considered a minor up to the age of twenty-one for certain age-related offenses (often called status offenses) where the age of majority is greater than seventeen.

These include alcohol-related offenses under the age of twenty-one, failure to attend school up to eighteen and tobacco-related offenses up to age eighteen.

Depending upon the particular offense cited a juvenile may find themselves before a municipal or justice of the peace court (typically for class C misdemeanors), the juvenile criminal courts (for everything else), or even moved into the regular criminal courts and treated as an adult. The age-related offenses over the age of seventeen are typically processed by a municipal court or justice of the peace court.

Minors can be charged with a wide range of crimes including those specific to their age and normal criminal offenses. The majority of regular criminal offenses extend to minors with no special consideration for their age.

There are some crimes that may only be committed by individuals under a specific age (seventeen, eighteen and twenty-one, respectively) for which the same conduct after the respective age of majority is no longer criminalized in Texas. When all of these potential criminal offenses are taken together, minors may be charged with crimes ranging from the lowest misdemeanor (class C) to the gravest felony.

Texas law is designed to treat minors more carefully in the juvenile criminal justice system than adults in the normal criminal justice system. Our laws are designed to prevent juveniles from getting on a criminal path that cannot be reversed. As a result our juvenile criminal justice system favors rehabilitation over straight punishment and a set of complicated processes exist to restrict access to juvenile and minor criminal records that may foreclose that person’s life opportunities for being a stupid teenager.

The two greatest problems with this puzzle of processes are:

  1. A myth exists that all juvenile records are forever sealed; and
  2. It can be challenging to determine which processes best protect a person from their teenage mistakes.

We’ll spend the remaining parts in this blog series talking about the processes but let’s first straighten out the myth about sealed juvenile records in Texas.

Are All Juvenile Records Automatically Sealed in Texas?

A popular myth exists that once you turn seventeen or eighteen the state automatically seals all your juvenile criminal records and you automatically get a fresh start. That just isn’t true in Texas.

All juvenile criminal records are not sealed in Texas and those that are sealed or restricted may be used at a later date. 

Under Texas law there are two mechanisms to automatically seal or restrict some juvenile criminal records–but it’s important to understand their limitations.

These mechanisms include restricted access under the Texas Family Code and confidentiality of fine-only misdemeanors under the Texas Family Code and Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

Neither of these mechanisms to automatically seal juvenile records are perfect. They do not seal every juvenile record nor is the protection of those records absolute. In either case the state may revive and use those records in a future criminal prosecution. We will discuss each of these mechanisms in greater detail in the next post.

Although there are a number of other methods under Texas law to seal or even expunge certain juvenile criminal records, it’s important to understand that some juvenile criminal records, like some adult criminal records, cannot be sealed or expunged.

Some crimes under Texas law are just too severe for the state (or at least the legislature) to want those convictions not to appear in background checks.

However, if there are opportunities to seal or expunge criminal records that might be damaging to your employment, housing, education, or licensing, then you should consider taking advantage of those opportunities to limit your criminal background records.

In the next post we will go into more detail about how those automatic sealing and restricting mechanisms work. Part three will address methods available to seal those juvenile criminal records and part four will address options to expunge juvenile and minor criminal records in Texas. Part five will conclude by putting these all together.

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