The Legal Corner is a regular blog post brought to you by Daniel McCarey and Allison McPherson of Youth Represent. Youth Represent provides free legal services to over 1,000 young people in NYC every year, including to patients at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center as part of our medical-legal partnership. Now, they’re bringing their legal knowledge directly to you in regular posts about legal issues that impact teens and young adults.

Court cases are complicated for anyone to fully comprehend.

For teens and young adults, understanding their own criminal history and what shows up on background checks can be especially difficult. That’s one of the reasons why conducting New York State criminal record reviews for young people is the bread and butter of what we do at Youth Represent.

Here’s what every young person should know about criminal records in New York State. Keep in mind that each state has different laws regarding criminal history. Below, we go into detail about New York State RAP sheets. RAP stands for Record of Arrest and Prosecution. If you have been arrested in a different state, look for information about accessing your criminal history in that particular state.

1. What is a RAP sheet? Do I have one?

A RAP sheet represents your entire criminal history. If you’ve been arrested and fingerprinted at a precinct, that information will be stored in the state’s database, and you have a RAP sheet. Keep in mind that different states may have different names for criminal records.

2. So what exactly is on a RAP sheet?

A RAP sheet tracks your criminal case from beginning to end. Each case is represented by a “cycle.”

First, the cycle lists the date and location of the arrest as well as the arrest charges, which are the New York Penal Law codes you allegedly violated. Second, it includes what you were charged with by the District Attorney at your arraignment (this is the first time you appear before a judge after being processed following your arrest). Sometimes the District Attorney’s charges at arraignment are not the same as the arrest charges. The cycle then tracks your court case. It will list all the times you appeared (or failed to appear) in court. Finally, the cycle includes how your case ended.

3. Why would I want to see my RAP sheet?

It’s important and empowering to have accurate knowledge of your criminal history. Court cases are overwhelming and difficult to navigate. It is easy to misunderstand how your case ends. We’ve worked with young people who’ve thought that a case was dismissed when it wasn’t, or that a conviction was still public knowledge when it was actually sealed.

Seeing your RAP sheet tells you what information someone will see if they run a background check. Background checks are often run by employers and sometimes colleges and universities. If you don’t know what’s on your RAP sheet, you may tell a potential employer about an arrest when you don’t actually have to. It also gives you a chance to think about the best way to explain an arrest to a potential employer.

Also, it is estimated that five to ten percent of RAP sheets in New York State have errors on them. That means that cases may be popping up on a background check that should be sealed. Requesting your RAP sheet lets you see if there are any errors that need to be corrected.

4. What does it mean for a case to be dismissed and sealed?

Cases seal for a number of reasons and sealed cases will not show up on a background check. In New York State, misdemeanor and felony convictions never seal.

Here are some of the ways a case could seal:

  • Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD): This means that you were charged with a misdemeanor, and your lawyer reached a settlement with the District Attorney. As long as you don’t get rearrested in the timeframe agreed to (often six months or a year), your case will be dismissed and sealed.
  • Youthful offender (YO) status: If you were charged with a crime (misdemeanor or felony) allegedly committed before your 19th birthday, a judge can choose to offer you the opportunity to get YO status. This means that the case will seal automatically, even if you are convicted of the crime, if you follow any conditions laid out by the judge.
  • Juvenile delinquency: If you allegedly committed a crime when you were 7-16 years old, it will generally go through family court. Once you complete a certain set of requirements (similar to YO status requirements), the case will be dismissed and sealed.
  • After 10 years: If you’ve been crime-free for 10 years AND have two or fewer convictions on your criminal record, you can apply to have those records sealed.
  • Violation: If you were charged with a violation and not a criminal misdemeanor, the case will usually automatically seal after 1-3 years.

5. What will they see when I apply for a job?

Most employers (including for retail and customer service positions) will run a basic background check that shows public, reportable information. Keep in mind that this only includes convictions and not original charges. It includes felony and misdemeanor convictions and any open cases.

If you’re applying for a job that requires a license, like a security guard, home health aide or childcare worker, your potential employer can also see semi-public information on your RAP sheet. However, this does not include sealed cases.

Finally, if you’re applying for a job in the government, military or law enforcement, your potential employer can see your entire RAP sheet. This includes even cases that were dismissed and sealed.

6. How can I see my RAP sheet?

There are a few different ways you can get a copy of your RAP sheet. You can request a copy from the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), which costs $62. You may be able to have the fee waived, however, and some organizations (including Youth Represent) can run your RAP sheet for free. Learn more about requesting your rap sheet.

7. Are there ever errors on RAP sheets?

Yes. Unfortunately, the court system and the agency handling RAP sheets do not always communicate effectively. Other times, court proceedings aren’t put into the database properly. The most common errors we see include:

  • Unsealed violation errors: The case should have been sealed but isn’t.
  • Hanging arrests: The end of the court case was not properly recorded, so the case looks like it is still open when it is not.

If you notice errors on your RAP sheet, you can get them corrected. Some nonprofits and advocacy organizations will do this for free. You can also get errors corrected yourself, though it will take some time.

Daniel McCarey is a graduate of the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School. He is dedicated to advocating for marginalized and oppressed communities within the framework of collective liberation. Daniel has experience in a number of legal and social services including, but not limited to, special education law, criminal law, benefits, and healthcare.

Allison McPherson is a paralegal with Youth Represent, with prior experience in social work and children’s mental health. She is passionate about partnering with young people who are disenfranchised to foster a sense of empowerment in a broken system. Allison approaches client work with a trauma-informed lens and motivational interviewing techniques.