Once you have a criminal record, it's hard to get rid of it. It follows you to job interviews, on housing applications, and through government benefits. A criminal record can impact your ability to join the U.S. military as well. For many, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Army National Guard, and Coast Guard present advantageous employment opportunities. But to gain employment with a branch of the military, you must enlist first, and you may not be able to with a criminal record.
How do you deal with a criminal record in New Jersey when you want to join the military? It's possible to expunge your records, must you be eligible for expungement, and in many cases, the military can still see your expunged records.
Can You Join the Military with a Criminal Record?
There's no straightforward answer as to whether you can join the military with a criminal record or not. It depends on the severity and nature of your offense. Also, different branches of the military have their own moral standards for enlistment. Finally, whether the recruiter looks past your previous offenses or not depends on the needs of the military at that time. If it's wartime and the military needs recruits, they might be more willing to let you enlist in spite of some offenses.
Criminal Offenses That Could Prevent You from Enlisting
The military may not look at how your criminal case ended up, but is usually more concerned with whether you committed the offense or not. For example, if charges against you for shoplifting were dismissed because the store owner didn't want to press charges, it won't go over as well as if the charges were dismissed because the DA couldn't find enough evidence to prove you did it.
Criminal offenses that fall into some categories are more likely to prevent you from joining the military or may require special approval through a moral waiver. These categories include:
- Conviction: Guilty of a crime, offense, or other violation of law by a court or competent jurisdiction
- Adverse adjudication: Convictions, findings, decisions, sentences, judgments, or dispositions other than those unconditionally dropped, unconditionally dismissed, or acquitted
- Pretrial intervention or deferment: In New Jersey, the Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI) which allows offenders to meet some other requirement rather than go through the typical criminal justice process
Convictions that resulted in fines, confinement, probation, parole, pardons, orders to submit bail or collateral, certain expungements, and juvenile offenses may require you to submit a moral waiver, or undergo a moral character screening.
What Is a Moral Character Screening?
If you have a criminal record, the military will want to evaluate your suitability before you can join. During a moral character screening process, recruiters look into your criminal background and credit history. They're aiming to prevent people who could misrepresent the military from enlisting.
Reasons for moral character screening for enlisting in the military
- The military doesn't want to admit anyone who has social habits such as theft, arson, or resistance to authority, as they would be bad for morale.
- The military wants to screen people who would have major disciplinary problems, as these individuals could divert resources from missions.
- The military wants to ensure others enlisting that they won't be in proximity to criminals.
The process involves screening and interviews. The screening procedures can last a long time, so start as early as you can. At the interview, the recruiter expects you to disclose all information about run-ins with law enforcement, charges, and convictions you've experienced.
What do recruiters ask about at moral character screening interviews?
- Juvenile court adjudications
- Traffic violations
- Probation periods
- Dismissed or pending charges
- Dismissed or pending convictions (including expunged or sealed)
What Happens if You Don't Disclose Your Criminal History?
Providing false information or withholding any information about your criminal history with a military recruiter is a federal offense. You could be charged and tried under federal law or by a military court for False Statement or Fraudulent Enlistment. It's in your best interest, therefore, to be completely truthful during your recruiter interview.
The recruiter will do a background check, and your expunged criminal offense might not appear on it. But there will also likely be a security clearance criminal records check, and expunged records will show up here.
Eligibility for Expungement in New Jersey
If you have a criminal history in New Jersey, you may get your record expunged. Expungement essentially “erases” the record of your crime, so most people (such as employers or landlords) won't be able to see it.
Not everyone who has committed a crime is eligible for expungement in New Jersey, however. You must meet certain criteria and go through the expungement process. If you have a Disorderly Persons or DP offense—the equivalent of a misdemeanor—you must qualify based on the following requirements:
- No more than two previous Disorderly Persons offenses or misdemeanors
- No indictable crime or felony records in New Jersey or any other state
- No charges currently pending against you
It must also have been at least five years since one or more of the following (the most recent):
- Your conviction
- Date you finished paying restitution
- End date of your parole or probation
- End date of your completed jail or prison sentence
For felonies, the criteria are similar, but the five-year period increases to 6 years. Also, some felonies in New Jersey do not qualify for expungement at all, including robbery and aggravated sexual assault.
Can the Military See Expunged Records?
Although some employers and landlords may not be able to see your expunged criminal record, the military can. For this reason, it's essential not to lie or conceal information during your recruitment interview. Even if you've had a criminal offense expunged, the military will still find out about it.
If you have an expunged criminal record, you can still enlist. Most branches of the military will require a criminal record waiver.
Criminal Record Waivers
When undergoing the process for military enlistment, the military waives some previous criminal offenses.
Offenses that require you to get a waiver for enlisting in the military
- Six or more minor traffic violations
- Juvenile offenses
- Arrests, citations, charges, or being allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor
- Pleading guilty for the criminal possession of stolen property
- Felony (aggravated assault, burglary, manslaughter, robbery, narcotics possession, etc.)
When you're trying to obtain a waiver for the enlistment process, it's essential to gather as much documentation to support your claim as possible. In some cases, a letter of recommendation from a community member with good standing or the judge involved in your case can be beneficial. If you're planning to enlist and you know you have a criminal record, you may want to collect your evidence before you speak with the recruiter. You know they'll ask about it, so it doesn't hurt to come prepared.
Although scrutiny of your criminal record is standard across all branches of the military, each branch may handle the details differently, or be stricter in their decision. Below are requirements for the Army, Air Force, and Navy.
Review of an applicant's criminal record starts with the Army recruiter. Applicants with a criminal history go through the suitability review process to determine if they can get a waiver for their offense or not. Keep in mind that applying for a waiver doesn't automatically grant you enlistment. The waiver authorities must approve it.
The Army will not grant waivers for conditions including (but not limited to):
- Under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of applications
- Anyone under confinement, parole, or probation
- Conviction for more than one serious offense
- Confirmed positive result for alcohol or drugs
- Charges that are still pending
The Navy classifies offenses into four areas for the purposes of enlistment:
- Chart A – Minor Traffic Violations: Six or more violations of this kind requires a waiver
Chart B – Minor Non-Traffic Violations/Misdemeanors: Three or more violations of this kind requires a waiver
- Chart C – Non-Minor Misdemeanors: One or more violations of this kind requires a waiver
- Chart D – Felonies: One or more violations of this kind requires a waiver, but felony waivers are rare with the Navy
The Air Force bases its enlistment moral waiver system on the category of offenses. Category 1 includes the most serious crimes and category 5 are the least serious.
- One or more convictions or adverse adjudications in category 1, 2, or 3 over the span of a lifetime requires a waiver.
- Two or more convictions or adverse adjudications in the last three years from category 4 requires a waiver.
- Six or more convictions or adverse adjudications in the last three years from category 5 requires a waiver.
A New Jersey Attorney for Expungement
For more information about your expungement and how it may affect your ability to enlist, contact New Jersey expungement attorney, Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm. Call today at 888-535-3686 to set up an initial consultation.