A Summary of Tennessee’s Expungement Law

By Daniel A. Horwitz:

*Note: This is a free informational resource about expungement law in Tennessee.  It is not intended to be construed as legal advice.  If you are seeking to hire an attorney to expunge your record for you, you can click here instead.*

The most common legal question I receive has nothing to do with constitutional law, appellate litigation, or other staples of my standard law practice.  Instead, on an almost daily basis, somebody wants to know whether they—or their son, daughter, husband, wife, mother, father, brother, or sister—can get their criminal record expunged.

Usually, the reason for the inquiry is that someone is having trouble getting a job, renting an apartment, or is experiencing some other collateral consequence of their public criminal record.  It’s a huge problem in Nashville, because criminal records are unusually accessible via this public search tool.  After I filed this case back in 2015, the number of inquiries that I received about expungement eligibility was so large that I created a free FAQ on expungement law in an attempt to provide some much-needed public information on the issue.  Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t been enough.

Because the criminal justice system has metastasized to the point where it is the default tool that society uses to address even the most harmless wrongdoing, between 2000 and 2012, more than 128,000 people in Nashville alone—representing roughly a quarter of the city—acquired 350,000 separate criminal records for charges that were ultimately dismissed outright.  In a sensible world, the magnitude of that figure would be staggering.  As far as the American criminal justice system is concerned, though, it’s fairly standard.  Across the United States, approximately 70 million adults have a criminal record of some kind, meaning that roughly a third of our eligible workforce is bogged down by a prior interaction with law enforcement.

Fortunately, Tennessee is better than many other states in enabling people to expunge their criminal records and move on with their lives, especially when it comes to dismissed and non-violent offenses.  Recent changes to Tennessee’s expungement statute have also expanded the number of people who are able to take advantage of the many benefits that expungement offers.  Accordingly, this post is intended to be a current—but non-exhaustive—summary of the most common scenarios in which a person is eligible to have their criminal record expunged in Tennessee.  It is not, however, intended to be a substitute for case-specific legal advice.  If you are looking to hire a professional to evaluate your expungement eligibility or expunge your record for you, then you should contact a lawyer who provides the service.  The attorney who represented you after your arrest may handle it for you for free.  Other attorneys may quote you a small fortune to handle your expungement.  For my part, I charge $100 to conduct expungement eligibility evaluations in Nashville and between $100 and $350 per charge to prepare and file your paperwork, depending on the type of charge at issue.  As always, if you are able to do so, hiring an attorney is a better idea than attempting to practice law yourself.

With that disclaimer in mind, here are the four most common scenarios in which a person will be able to expunge their record in Tennessee—a formal process that has the legal effect of “restor[ing] the person to the position he or she occupied prior to the arrest or charge.”[1]

1.  Dismissed and Retired Charges:  Far and away the most common charges that are eligible to be expunged under Tennessee law are those that were either dismissed or retired.  Any other charge that did not result in a conviction—such as a nolle prosequi or a not guilty verdict—is eligible to be expunged as well.  Tennessee law also provides that such charges are eligible to be expunged without payment of an expungement fee.  If you were assessed court costs, however, then those costs must be paid or waived by a judge before the charge can be expunged.

2.  Diversions:  Tennessee law has various forms of diversion.  As a general rule, though, if you successfully completed a pretrial diversion program or a judicial diversion program, then you will be eligible to have your record expunged.  There is, however, a $280.00 fee to expunge charges that were resolved via a diversion program.

3.  Non-Violent Convictions:  Many non-violent convictions are eligible to be expunged under Tennessee law.  As long as you have no more than two non-violent convictions on your record (excluding traffic offenses, like driving on a suspended license), your non-violent conviction is probably eligible to be expunged five years after your sentence expired.

If you were convicted of a felony, then you may be eligible for expungement if your charge appears on this list.  Alternatively, if you were convicted of a misdemeanor, then you may be eligible for expungement if your charge does not appear on this list.  Notably, despite a lot of advertising from DUI lawyers intimating that DUI charges will stay on your record forever if you don’t hire them to acquit you, DUI charges that were pleaded down to the reduced charge of either Reckless Driving or Reckless Endangerment are eligible to be expunged.  There is also a mandatory $280.00 fee to expunge convictions in Tennessee, which will have to be paid in addition to any outstanding court costs before your charge can be expunged.

Where convictions are concerned, however, there are both exceptions and grey areas.  For example, a person who has three total convictions for simple possession of marijuana can sometimes get all three convictions expunged due to a drafting error in Tennessee’s expungement statute.  Conversely, people who are otherwise eligible to expunge a conviction may be denied an expungement if the District Attorney opposes it.  If you are wondering whether your situation falls within a potential exception, then you should contact an attorney to evaluate your eligibility for you.

4.  “Partial” Expungements:  In many cases, a person is charged with several offenses in the same indictment, but has one or more charges dismissed at the end of the case.  Under these circumstances, a person can have any charge in their indictment for which they were not convicted expunged from electronic databases.  This is known as a “partial” expungement, and the electronic version of it is new.

For most people, expungement is a valuable and important tool, because a person’s criminal record is no longer accessible to prospective employers, and “persons whose records have been expunged may properly decline to reveal or acknowledge the existence of the charge.”[2]  For some people, however, expungement may be harmful, or may require additional precautions like certification of a person’s expungement order.  Thus, there is no substitute for contacting a licensed attorney to discuss your own individual situation with you.  If you are seeking to hire an attorney to expunge your record for you, you are welcome to click here instead.

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

[1] Miller v. Tennessee Bd. of Nursing, 256 S.W.3d 225, 231 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007).

[2] Pizzillo v. Pizzillo, 884 S.W.2d 749, 754 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1994).