Dismissal vs. Expungement: What Is the Difference?

Updated May 3, 2024
4 min read
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More than 25 percent of previously convicted Americans are unemployed. This is higher than the unemployment rate in the general population at any given time, even during the Great Depression. Meanwhile, more than 2.1 million young Americans under the age of 18 are arrested every year. In order to combat unemployment, which likely leads to repeat offenses, the legal system provides certain individuals a chance for a fresh start through the expungement of their arrest or conviction records.

It is important to note, however, the differences between expungement and dismissal of criminal charges — a consideration that calls into question, "Does expunged mean dismissed?" This article aims to define, compare, and contrast these two legal concepts, clarifying the distinctions and nuances in their meanings and consequences.

What Is Expungement?

The word “expunge” means “to erase or remove completely.” When a court issues an expungement order, one’s criminal conviction is removed from state and federal records, either by sealing or destroying them. When a criminal record is expunged, it’s as if the conviction never happened.

For instance, in Arizona, expungement is now an option for individuals convicted of minor marijuana offenses such as possession and sale. This is in light of the legalization of recreational marijuana use in the state. By having their conviction records expunged, many individuals have a second chance at obtaining better opportunities in life.

In many states, juvenile offenders are usually eligible for expungement. While some adults may also be qualified, most states limit this to less serious offenses. In many states, those convicted of serious crimes, such as sex crimes, murder, or kidnapping, are not eligible for expungement. Driving-related offenses are also not eligible for expungement in some states.

Applying for certain jobs, such as those in law enforcement, however, may still require disclosure of criminal records, even if they have been sealed. Take note that expungement means the crime is forgotten, as opposed to a pardon, where a crime is forgiven, usually by public officials such as the President or state governors.

What Is a Criminal Dismissal?

A criminal dismissal, on the other hand, is what happens when criminal proceedings are resolved without a conviction. Dismissed charges are not the same as an acquittal, wherein the person accused of a crime is found not guilty of the crimes charged. 


A court or prosecutor may dismiss criminal charges before going to trial or before arriving at a verdict. This may happen for several reasons, including mistakes in the criminal complaint, insufficiency of the evidence, loss of evidence, or unavailability of necessary witnesses. Criminal charges may also be dismissed in cases of violations of the constitutional rights of the accused.

A criminal charge may be dismissed “with prejudice,” which means that no other similar claims may be filed for the same offense allegedly committed. Charges dismissed with prejudice are still eligible for appeal. On the other hand, if the charge is dismissed “without prejudice,” other claims may still be filed as long as they are filed within the statute of limitations for the specific offense.

Charges Dismissed vs. Expunged

Dismissal and expungement are distinct legal outcomes with different implications for a person's criminal record. The question, "Is expunged the same as dismissed?" underscores the significance of comprehending these differences. In this discussion, we will delve into the main difference between dismissed and expunged to clarify misunderstandings and accurately illustrate what these terms mean within a legal context.

Dismissal and expungement have several differences, mainly regarding the following:

  • Who is eligible

  • Who issues the order

  • How it may be granted, i.e., voluntarily or upon motion or petition

  • Whether a conviction is required

  • Whether it shows up in a background check

Who is eligible for a charge to be dismissed or expunged?

Depending on state laws, expungement is only available to specific groups of individuals (e.g., juvenile offenders) or those charged with certain crimes. This standard reflects the fundamental difference between expungement vs. dismissal. However, charges may be dismissed regardless of who the accused is and the charges filed. A character reference letter for court may help to sort out the nature of the accused and present them as they are in front of a court.

Who decides on dismissal and expungement?

Only a court may issue an order of expungement. On the other hand, either the prosecutor or the judge may dismiss criminal charges. Also, expungements usually occur only on the state level, while both state and federal courts may dismiss cases brought before them.

How may an order of dismissal or expungement be granted?

The court or the prosecutor may dismiss charges upon a motion to dismiss, although the court or prosecutor may also voluntarily decide to issue the order on its own.

An expungement may only be granted upon filing an application or petition with the state court. In rare circumstances, charges are automatically expunged. For example, some states offer diversion programs, and once the offender completes the program, the charge is automatically expunged.

May charges be dismissed or expunged prior to conviction?

A dismissal does not require a conviction. In fact, the order of dismissal may be issued before even proceeding to trial. On the other hand, expungement usually occurs after a conviction. A dismissal order may also be expunged, as explained in the next section.

Will dismissed and expunged records show up on background checks?

Expungement and dismissal have different impacts when it comes to background checks. Exploring the differences between expunged vs. dismissed records allows us to see these impacts more clearly. 

Expungement generally exists to give the convicted individual a clean slate. Once a criminal record is expunged, it will usually not show up on background checks, such as for employment, housing, or when applying for certain licenses. A dismissal, however, will remain in the public record, although it may not entail the same consequences as a criminal conviction. Some jurisdictions also allow the expungement of dismissed charges, as well as arrest records.


Understanding the difference between expunged and dismissed is crucial when dealing with criminal charges. A dismissed case closes swiftly without a conviction, but it may still appear on records. Expungement, after a conviction, can provide a fresh start by erasing the offense from public records. Both processes, aided by a competent criminal defense attorney, are vital for individuals seeking a new start after a brush with the law. To supplement this, consider engaging with a reliable resource vendor for more in-depth insights and assistance.

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