Ask a lawyer: What is the difference between an expungement and a dismissal?

Last updated on March 24th, 2016 at 02:15 pm

Rachel Thomas

Rachel Thomas

This is a question that I hear a lot in my practice. Most people do not realize that an expungement and a dismissal are two very different things.

A ‘dismissal’ is the final outcome (or ‘disposition’ in legal terms) of a case. Other examples of possible outcomes are ‘guilty’ (by pleading guilty or being found guilty by a jury), ‘not guilty,’ ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ (often called NGRI), ‘nolled,’ or ‘retired.’ If you were arrested for a case that was later dismissed and someone (usually a potential employer) printed your criminal record, it would show the arrest and dismissal.

An expungement, on the other hand, is the act of having a charge completely deleted from your record like it never happened. So if an employer printed your criminal record where a charge had been expunged, then your record would not even show the arrest.

Certainly, expungements are preferable to dismissals, as most people would rather have a perfectly clean criminal record than one that reflects arrests, even if the charges were later dismissed. People who have charges dismissed, but then do not take the extra step to get the charges expunged, often fall victim to the ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ theory. Namely, employers see criminal arrests, even if the charges were dismissed, and figure that it is better to hire a person who has never been arrested at all (or who was savvy enough to have their record expunged).

Not every criminal charge is eligible for expungement. Only charges with certain outcomes are eligible—cases that have been dismissed, retired (after the retirement period has elapsed), nolled, found not guilty, no true bill, conditional guilty pleas after properly completing the conditions, and some regular guilty pleas per Tenn. Code Ann. 40-32-101(g). As a general rule, a charge is not eligible for expungement if you pled guilty or were found guilty by a jury. Please see the criminal court clerk’s website for more information about how to get charges expunged at

The information in ‘Ask A Lawyer’ is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. Reading this column does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Rachel Thomas, attorney. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.

Rachel owns and runs the Law Office of Rachel Thomas PLC, located at 114 30th Avenue South, where she focuses on representing persons accused of committing crimes as well as those dealing with family law issues (divorce or child support/custody). You can find additional legal information on Rachel’s website’s News/Blog page at Her contact information is or 615-645-9596.