Any arrest or delinquency adjudication records from before you have turned 18 are usually kept by the courts at least until you reach the age of 21. Juvenile records are never accessible to the general public and can only be viewed and copied by the juvenile, the juvenile's attorney, the juvenile's parent or guardian, and a select list of law enforcement and government agencies. (section 985.045(2), Florida Statutes). In some situations, you may want to apply before age 21 to have your juvenile record expunged (destroyed). However, in other situations, your juvenile record can never be destroyed and can even become part of your adult criminal record. If you reoffend as an adult, there is good news: juvenile offenses committed more than five years ago cannot be added to your Criminal Punishment Code score sheet in Florida.
The sooner your juvenile record is expunged, the sooner you will be able to provide better answers on applications for employment. For example, you can legally deny that an arrest ever occurred if the record of that arrest is expunged from court files and police records. However, if you are charged with a felony in the future, even an expunged charge can be used against you as a prior offense. Also, you will still need to acknowledge the arrest if you are applying for certain jobs, for admission to the Florida Bar, and in other other limited circumstances.
The rules on how long courts keep juvenile records are set forth in section 943.0515, Florida Statutes. However, the law and how it applies in different scenarios is complicated. I offer my explanations and some examples in this post.
Records That Are Automatically Destroyed at Age 21
As a general rule, juvenile delinquency records are automatically destroyed at age 21. There are exceptions: (1) if the juvenile ever went to a juvenile prison or correctional facility, (2) if the juvenile is classified as a serious or habitual juvenile offender, (3) if the juvenile continues to be charged with certain crimes after turning 18, and (4) if the juvenile charge is a sex offense committed while 14 years old or older. Those situations are addressed below. Otherwise, a juvenile who turns 21 does not need to take any action to have his or her record expunged.
Records That Are Automatically Destroyed at Age 26
If you went to a juvenile prison or correctional facility or you were at some point designated a serious or habitual juvenile offender, your juvenile record will still be destroyed at age 26 if you remain without forcible felony charges as an adult. You do not need to take any action to have your record expunged once you turn 26.
For example, you went to a juvenile prison for a serious felony at age 16, and, after your release from prison at age 18, you remain out of trouble for several years. Then, when you are 27 years old, you apply for a job. Because your record was automatically expunged at age 26, you can say "no" if asked about prior criminal history on your job application.
Option to Petition for Early Juvenile Record Expungement Between Ages 18 and 21
Even though the average juvenile record is destroyed at age 21, you may want to have your record expunged before turning 21 years old. You qualify to do this if (1) you are older than 18 but younger than 21 years old, and (2) you have not been charged with or found guilty of any crime in at last five years. The expungement process is similar to that of an adult criminal record.
For example, you have a burglary charge on your juvenile record from when you were 14 years old. Once you turn age 19, you can apply for early expungement of your juvenile record if you have had no other charges. Even if your application is not approved, you could still have your record automatically expunged when you turn 21. If your application is approved, you can deny ever having been arrested on a job application.
Two Exceptions to Automatic Record Expungement
If you have a more extensive juvenile delinquency history, you could still get the automatic expungement at age 26, but only if you mostly stay out of trouble as an adult. Even if you went to prison as a juvenile, your record will be destroyed automatically once you turn 26 years old.
One exception to this is where you are charged with a forcible felony before your juvenile record is destroyed. In this case, your juvenile record could be merged with your adult criminal record. If you are convicted of a forcible felony in adult court while you are still under 18, this merging will occur and your juvenile history then becomes part of your adult criminal record and will not be expunged. If you are over 18, just being charged with a forcible felony will cause your juvenile history to become part of your adult criminal record.
If you are merely arrested for a forcible felony but the State of Florida does not file formal charges against you, your juvenile record would not be merged with your adult record. However, if the State formally charges an 18-year old with a forcible felony, their juvenile record still merges with their adult record, even if those charges are later dropped or dismissed.
For example, by the time you turn age 20, you have never been to a juvenile prison or correctional facility. But then, while still age 20 years old, you are arrested and formally charged with burglary of a car. Your lawyer then investigates the case and uncovers evidence that the eyewitness testimony is so unreliable that the prosecutor drops your charges. Under these circumstances, your juvenile record would become part of your adult criminal record. The automatic destruction of your juvenile history will not occur when you turn 21.
Another example: You never went to a juvenile prison or correctional facility as a juvenile, but you do have a juvenile delinquency record. Then when you are 19 years old, you are arrested and charged with a forcible felony (e.g., aggravated battery) in adult criminal court. You wish to enter a plea of guilty and rely on the judge to give you a fair, lenient sentence. In determining your sentence, the judge can consider all of your juvenile delinquency history in determining how to sentence you. Also, your juvenile criminal history will never be destroyed because it is now part of your adult record.
What If I Never Qualify for Expungement of My Juvenile Record?
If you continue to get arrested and charged with crimes as a young adult, your juvenile record will continue to haunt you. You may never qualify for the automatic expunction at age 21 or age 26. In this situation, your juvenile priors will always be visible to a law enforcement agency, including a prosecutor's office. However, there is a 5-year time limit on those juvenile charges being scored against you on your adult Criminal Punishment Code score sheet. Once five years has passed since your juvenile offenses were committed, those charges should not be on your score sheet for sentencing on any new adult felonies. It is not the date of conviction, but rather, the date the crimes occurred that is significant for this five-year time limit.