Possibly thousands of people with convictions in Sonoma County for marijuana-related crimes could have their criminal records cleared or reduced, an opportunity created when voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016 legalizing recreational cannabis among adults 21 and older.
District attorneys in San Francisco and San Diego have taken the rare step of initiating a comprehensive look into old cases and filing petitions on behalf of people convicted of acts that today are considered lesser crimes or no longer crimes at all.
However, that’s unlikely to happen in Sonoma County unless state lawmakers pass a bill that would make such reviews mandatory statewide. Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said her 50-attorney department doesn’t have the resources to dedicate staff time to evaluating old cases, but it does try to help people who initiate petitions on their own.
“I’m doing what I can to make the process more streamlined, but I simply don’t have the resources,” Ravitch said.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, proposed legislation Jan. 9 that would require courts to automatically expunge records or reduce sentences for prior cannabis convictions. It’s unclear how much that would cost.
In the meantime, the two-page petition, which carries no fees, is designed to be easy for a person to complete without a lawyer. A person with a misdemeanor conviction can petition the court to have the case dismissed, and then request their record be expunged. A new 2018 state law allows the court to seal the records of dismissed cases.
Some cases, especially those involving felony crimes, require additional review in which a lawyer could benefit the petitioner.
Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said her attorneys will help anyone wanting to get a marijuana-related conviction dismissed or reduced, regardless of income, at no cost. For pending cases, her office reviews prior convictions and initiates a reclassification to misdemeanors — most often for those falling under 2014’s Proposition 47 reductions for certain drug possession felonies.
“To reduce it or get it dismissed could make the difference between employment and no employment,” Pozzi said. “Today, they aren’t crimes. If they’re not crimes today, why should it remain on their record?”
Proposition 64 made it legal for adults in California to have, sell, travel with, grow and consume marijuana in certain small quantities — acts that once led to the arrest and incarceration of thousands of people. Nearly 500,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses between 2006 and 2015 in the state, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
On Jan. 31, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced his staff would review up to 4,940 felony marijuana convictions — dating back to 1975 — and dismiss and seal 3,038 misdemeanors sentenced prior to the initiative’s passage.
“While this relief is already available pursuant to Proposition 64 for anyone with a conviction, it requires that they know it is available and to retain an attorney to file the expungement paperwork,” Gascón said in a statement when he announced his plan.
Gascón cited a San Francisco city analysis showing that a sharp increase in marijuana arrests between 1999 and 2000 was accompanied by a jump in the already disproportionate arrest rate among African-Americans.
Researchers have long said criminalizing marijuana and other drugs disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income communities.
Erich Pearson, the executive director of SPARC dispensaries in San Francisco and Sonoma County, praised Gascón’s initiative and criticized Ravitch for not doing the same, saying the spirit behind Prop. 64 was to “right the wrongs of the War on Drugs.”
“Marijuana is legal now… and it never should have been illegal,” Pearson said. “We should make right all those convictions, and the District Attorney has been part of creating those convictions.”
Pearson was arrested in 1998 in Sonoma County on suspicion of multiple felonies, including marijuana cultivation. He reached a plea agreement that reduced the charges to misdemeanors. Later, after completing probation, he petitioned the court and his record was expunged.
Pearson noted that he is an educated white man who could afford to pay for a lawyer to handle the matter.
“Not everybody has the ability or wherewithal to go in and get it done,” Pearson said. “So here you have people with petty marijuana offenses who may go in and apply for a job and not get it, they don’t get a student loan — and that’s not right.”
Statistics on Prop. 64-driven petitions in Sonoma County weren’t available last week.
Ravitch estimated her office has fielded between 50 to 75 petitions from people asking for their convictions to be dismissed or reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Some marijuana convictions cannot be reclassified if the case involved factors such as selling to a minor or crimes involving fraud or theft. Ravitch said she believes most petitions have been granted. Prosecutors have only objected in two instances: one involving a voluntary manslaughter case and another investigation into cannabis cultivation that revealed illegal stream diversion.
“If somebody wants to file a petition by themselves, contact my office. We’re more than happy to work with them so they don’t have to get a lawyer,” Ravitch said. “It doesn’t have to be a difficult process.”
In Mendocino County, District Attorney Office spokesman Mike Geniella said the department — like those in many other small, rural counties — doesn’t have the resources to devote time toward proactively researching old cases, but the department will facilitate petitions when people come forward. They’ve processed 80 petitions since 2016.
“An office this size simply doesn’t have the resources or the staff time,” Geniella said in an email. “A number of DA offices across the state face the same issues, and they have indicated, like Mendocino County, they will rely on the voter-approved petition process rather than arbitrary actions of individual district attorneys.”
Cannabis attorney Omar Figueroa has been holding reclassification and expungement workshops around Northern California to help educate people about the process.
For people with marijuana-related felony convictions, a reclassification of the crime to a misdemeanor removes a significant barrier to jobs, professional licenses, loans and other public benefits. Figueroa said he charges a flat fee of $1,250 to help someone file a petition to reclassify a conviction.
“For a lot of people there’s psychological relief,” Figueroa said. “It brings a sense of closure. That chapter is closed. Cannabis is legal, and their previous illegal conduct is no longer a crime.”