In Maricopa County, more than 10,000 people once convicted of low-level pot offenses have now had their records cleared.
Proposition 207, the ballot initiative that legalized recreational cannabis in the state of Arizona, set the expungement process into motion when it passed in November 2020. Since July 2021, anyone in Arizona with a qualifying pot charge has been eligible to petition the courts to scrub it from their record.
In Maricopa County — once hard-lined in its treatment of low-level pot offenders — county prosecutors have cleared many of these cases.
Over the last seven months, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced last week, the agency has filed 10,607 petitions to expunge prior pot charges. Attorneys have been filing around 500 petitions a week, according to the office.
By law, courts are directed to grant these expungement petitions after 30 days, unless Maricopa County prosecutors were to reverse course and challenge petitions they had already filed.
This means that it’s a “very fair assumption” that all 10,000 petitions have been, or soon will be, granted, said Julie Gunnigle, an attorney and advocate who has worked on expungement clinics around the state. “Maricopa judges are not giving pushback on these,” she said.
Still, advocates say, this is just a dent in the number of people who are eligible to clear their names. And they worry that, even in Maricopa County, some are slipping through the cracks.
The county is “being incredibly proactive,” said Mike Robinette, the executive director of Southern Arizona NORML, a cannabis and justice advocacy organization. “And it’s great that they are now at 10,000 cases.”
But that number is likely just a drop in the bucket, according to Robinette. “We’re still not reaching the majority of people who are eligible for expungements,” he said.
Most estimates by experts put the number of eligible people, statewide, in the hundreds of thousands. Given its population, Maricopa County is expected to make up the lion’s share of those cases.
For advocates, the task now is to try and reach them.
On Tuesday afternoon, dozens filed into the Burton Barr Central Library in central Phoenix to learn how to clear their records.
The Arizona Marijuana Expungement Coalition, a project funded by the Arizona Department of Health Services, held a workshop there on expungements. The coalition holds such workshops around the state, providing the legal resources often needed to file expungement petitions.
One attendee Tuesday was Nelson Thomas, a photographer and current student at Glendale Community College. In 2018, he told Phoenix New Times, a minor traffic stop had turned into a nightmare when the officer found a small amount of weed in his car.
“I feel happy, I feel clear,” said Nelson Thomas, who had been given a felony charge and two years of probation for simple possession. Katya Schwenk
He was given a felony charge and two years of probation, he said. “I felt like it was the city just trying to squeeze some money out of me,” he said. “Like, I already ain’t got no money.
“I definitely feel a whole lot better moving forward,” Thomas added. “I feel happy. I feel clear.”
Clearing old pot charges can have a major impact on people’s lives, said Martin Hutchins Jr., the marijuana expungement litigation manager with the Arizona Justice Project, one of seven organizations that form part of the state’s coalition.
Hutchins said he had spoken with people who had been kept from jobs, from housing, and from tuition aid due to a prior pot felony charge. It was “so crucial,” he said, to allow people to clear their names.
Hutchins is glad Maricopa County is being proactive. “They have a much greater ability to identify people, at a faster rate,” he said. “We look forward to more counties taking advantage of that aspect of the law so we can see even more people benefiting from expungement.”
Prop 207 allows individuals to petition to expunge their cases and enables prosecutors to proactively scrub records clean — which is what prosecutors have been doing in Maricopa County.
By statute, once a petition to expunge a charge is submitted, the original prosecuting agency has 30 days to challenge. Unless prosecutors provide “clear and convincing” evidence that the charges are not eligible for expungement, the statute directs judges to automatically grant the petition.
MCAO, according to its Monday statement, has largely focused its proactive expungement efforts on recent convictions. More than 70 percent of its expungement petitions involved cases from the last six years.
The agency has also said that it will not file expungement petitions on behalf of people who have been convicted of another felony charge since their cannabis offense, and they must not have pending felony charges. These people are still eligible to request an expungement themselves.
Robinette said that it appears that the agency is focusing, primarily, on the “low-hanging fruit” — cases that are recent and fairly straightforward.
A spokesperson with MCAO touted the agency’s work on expungements but directed specific questions on the expungement program to Jason Kalish, the division chief handling the efforts. Kalish was not available for comment.
Some cases, though, are more complex than others.
Under the statute that voters passed, any simple possession offense involving less than 2.5 ounces of cannabis is eligible to be cleared. So are paraphernalia charges and some cultivation charges, when they involved six or fewer cannabis plants.
“Anecdotally, the biggest gap we’ve seen is people who were charged for [cannabis] oil and resin as a narcotic substance,” said Gunnigle. These cases, she pointed out, are likely harder to sift through, as many different substances are listed as narcotics.
In older cases, record-keeping often complicates matters.
Before cannabis was legalized, all possession cases of under two pounds of marijuana — whether one pound or one gram — could constitute a “class six” felony. So the exact amount is sometimes missing from police records.
But the exact weight matters in expungement cases. If you were charged for possession of one ounce of pot, you can have your conviction expunged. If you had three ounces, meanwhile, you aren’t eligible. It has been one of the “typical issues in expungement,” Gunnigle said.
In Maricopa County, Gunnigle also noted that expungements were good PR for an embattled office.
MCAO has been contending with numerous scandals in recent weeks. The head of the agency, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel, is facing calls to resign from top prosecutors in her office over questions about her sobriety and ability to run the office.
Last week, Adel appeared on PBS for a lengthy interview, defending herself against tough questions from host Ted Simons. One example: marijuana expungements. “We are doing some amazing things in our office, such as Prop 207 expungements,” she said.
“With each progressive scandal at the county attorney’s office, she seems to expunge more convictions,” said Gunnigle, who ran against Adel in the 2020 county attorney’s race.
“And that’s something we applaud,” she said.