One of the most common questions I get as a criminal defense attorney is how long a misdemeanor or felony conviction will stay on a person's record. This is of particular concern to my client base, because I practice criminal law in State College, Pennsylvania, and most of my clients are Penn State students, who want a clean record when they start looking for a job upon graduation. The simple answer is that like diamonds, misdemeanor and felony convictions last forever. Having a criminal record is the biggest collateral consequence to a criminal conviction, and it can haunt you for the rest of your life.
A lot of people are actually surprised to hear that a criminal record lasts forever. A common myth that I have heard repeatedly is the notion that criminal convictions are removed from your record after seven years. My best guess as to the origin of this myth is the fact that delinquent debt accounts are wiped off a credit report after seven years. Given the fact that there is a very large overlap between people who find themselves charged with crimes and people with bad credit scores, I can see how someone confused the seven year rule for credit reports with criminal records, and then this misconception spread like an urban legend.
The good news is that being charged with a crime does not necessarily mean that you will be convicted. If you have no prior record and are charged with a misdemeanor like DUI or possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia, you may be eligible for a first time offender's program like ARD. If you successfully complete the ARD program, your lawyer can file a motion to dismiss and expunge the charges from your record. In other cases, the District Attorney may not approve a defendant for ARD, however, the defense lawyer may be able to work out a plea agreement whereby the defendant pleads guilty to summary offenses instead of a misdemeanor. Summary offenses are the least serious category of crime under Pennsylvania law, and summary offenses can, under some circumstances, be expunged from a defendant's record after five years.
Of course, there are also cases where a defendant is simply not eligible for ARD, and the allegations are too serious to warrant lowering charges to summary offenses. In such cases, a skilled defense attorney may be able to find a legal defense, such as an illegal search, which warrants "suppression of evidence." If evidence is suppressed, it cannot be used at trial, which in many cases, renders the case unwinnable for the prosecution. In yet other cases, the best course of action is to proceed to trial, provided that a defendant has a viable defense.
If you are charged with a criminal offense, it is important to consult with a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. You must explore all available options for avoiding a criminal record. The internet has made it very easy for prospective employers, landlords and even people you are interested in dating, to perform a criminal background check on you.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. He limits his practice to criminal law. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/