Dave Gonzales was in his 20s when he followed his friends to Venice Beach on a sunny afternoon in 1985.
His buddies brought guitars to play music for the boardwalk crowd. Gonzales brought a joint to enjoy while he listened.
Before he could pass the joint to a friend, a hand grabbed his shoulder. A plain-clothes police officer then gave Gonzales a ticket.
Gonzales promptly took care of the $35 fine, thinking he’d paid for his mistake. But years later, when he went to the U.S. Post Office to apply for work, that joint cost him a job.
Three decades later, a misdemeanor charge for drug possession still hangs over Gonzales’ head.
Sporting sunglasses and long dreadlocks, 62-year-old Gonzales stood in a hallway at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, holding a Post-it note with his case number from 1985. He was in line with several hundred other people waiting for free legal advice during an “expungement fair” put on by the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance.
“I just need help to clear it up,” he said.
The March 17 event — staffed by volunteers wearing T-shirts that read “Changing lives through changing records” — was the largest clinic the DPA has held since Proposition 64 passed in November 2016.
Though most of the attention surrounding the initiative has centered on how it legalized recreational marijuana, the law also retroactively reduced penalties for just about every crime involving cannabis. Selling marijuana without a license was downgraded from felony to a misdemeanor, for example, while transporting up to an ounce of weed went from being a misdemeanor to fully legal for anyone 21 and older.
The changes were even more profound for juveniles. Prop. 64 was the nation’s first legalization measure that eliminated all cannabis-related criminal penalties for people under 18, with jail time and fines swapped out for community service and drug education courses.
The DPA estimates that up to a million people were eligible to have their crimes downgraded or cleared under Prop. 64. For those people, a change in their criminal background would mean wider access to jobs, housing, financial aid and other services that are currently out of reach. The DPA also estimates that 6,000 people who were in jail or prison when Prop 64 passed might be eligible to get their sentences reduced or even to go free.
But, so far, those are mostly just projections. More than 16 months after the measure passed, state data shows only a fraction of those who can clear up their records have even applied to do so.
People of color figure to be hurt the most. Though minorities and whites have used weed at roughly the same rates over the years, DPA data shows minorities have been much more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for marijuana-related crimes.
So nonprofit organizations, justice officials and legislators throughout California are working on ways to close that gap and restore rights to people hurt by the war on drugs.
Obstacles keep numbers low
Records show 4,885 people petitioned to have marijuana crimes expunged or reduced from November 2016 to September 2017, according to data collected from county courts by the Justice Council of California. But experts believe the actual number is almost certainly higher.
Four counties — Alpine, Imperial, Napa and Tehama — didn’t report any data at all. And most of the state’s 58 counties didn’t provide numbers for all four quarters.
But even if the actual figure is bigger, it’s still nowhere near the number of people eligible for a clean record under Prop. 64.
Many people aren’t even aware that the new law exists, according to Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, who championed the social justice aspects of legalization.
“For those who are eligible, they face a number of hurdles,” Bonta said.
People who believe they might be able to clear up their record can, on their own, fill out the appropriate forms provided by the Justice Council of California on its website. They can even scribble their request by hand on tissue paper — as Judge Becky Dugan with Riverside County Superior Court said some people have done. But no matter how the requests come in, Dugan said the courts will review them.
Bonta pointed out petitioners typically have to pay fees to get fingerprinted and to file paperwork. They also might need to take a day off work to go to court, or several if a hearing is required. Some people don’t live anywhere near where their violation took place, so transportation can be an issue. And many people simply aren’t comfortable filling out legal forms alone.
“What if I leave something out?” Gonzales said, shaking his head. “I just need a lawyer to help me out.”
Los Angeles attorney Dehsong Matheu, who volunteered to help clients at the Drug Policy Alliance workshop, said it typically costs several hundred dollars for legal counsel on simple Prop. 64 petitions. One client told him they’d taken out a loan from a friend to pay an attorney $1,000 and they still hadn’t had their record cleared.
Sacramento County Superior Court spokeswoman Kim Pederson said her court offered free training for petitioners and attorneys. Public defenders, community organizations and local churches also reached out to help area residents understand the process.
As a result, Sacramento County, the state’s eighth most populous county, reported the second highest number of applications in the state – 626 total. And a couple dozen more petitions came in during the last quarter of 2017, according to Pederson.
Still, they’ve received applications from less than 1 percent of the estimated 100,000 people in Sacramento County who are eligible to clearn up their records.
Should government do it?
Several district attorneys in California are taking a proactive approach.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón started the trend in January, saying his office would review all relevant records dating back to 1975.
“A criminal conviction can be a barrier to employment, housing and other benefits,” Gascon said. “So instead of waiting for the community to take action, we’re taking action for the community.”
DAs in San Diego, Alameda, Sonoma and Yolo counties have since followed suit.
But other county DAs – including top justice officials for Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties – have no plans to purge cannabis crimes.
L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a February statement that Prop. 64 lets people “move to the head of the line” if they petition for relief rather than wait for her court to “go through tens of thousands of case files.”
Judge Dugan said the voter-approved process puts the impetus on petitioners, and she doesn’t see that changing in Riverside County.
“Courts don’t set policy. I don’t believe the D.A. sets policy. Legislators set policy,” Dugan said.
The Riverside court — which had the most reported Prop. 64 applications in the state, per Justice Council figures — has no backlog, Dugan said. Most cases are processed within 60 days, and Dugan’s figures show that around 90 percent have been granted. Most of those applicants are either out of the court system or on probation; one man saw his cannabis charge reduced while he was in state prison on another charge.
For some strained courts, resources have been a problem.
“The challenge was finding a way to expeditiously handle the deluge of petitions with a staff that had been decimated after the budget tax hit our courts,” said Pederson in Sacramento. “This was an unfunded mandate that consumed a fair number of court resources.”
Some justice officials have hesitated to go out of their way to help reduce marijuana convictions. They worry that violent offenders might be let out of jail or off of probation early, since cannabis charges are sometimes used to enhance sentences for other crimes.
But Eunisses Hernandez, of the DPA, notes that Prop 64 was approved by state voters, meaning it’s not optional for DAs to clear up charges. She added that prosecutors still can protest a change to any individual’s record that they feel might put the public at risk.
If Assemblyman Bonta has his way, every county will automatically adjust marijuana convictions. In January, he proposed a law — Assembly Bill 1793 — that would do just that.
“These are life changing, transformative opportunities that come with this right, under Prop. 64, and we want to bring those rights as close to people as possible,” Bonta said.
Bonta’s office is working with the U.S. Department of Justice, which should be able to use its database to identify all relevant convictions and direct those records to the proper court for review. And if those courts need additional funds to make the bill work, Bonta said his office is open to finding tax money for that.
Clinics help fill the gap
But for now, short of new legislation, people with cannabis-related criminal records are responsible for initiating any changes. That’s why advocacy organizations are stepping up to help people with the paperwork.
The DPA has held clinics to guide people through the petition process, sometimes sending them on their way with a stack of papers inches thick that they can file with the court. The agency’s March 17 clinic in L.A. was by far its largest, incorporating for the first time information about immigration, health care and job services.
“I’m grateful that I get to work for a company that believes in second chances,” said Veronica Garcia, who was there with PeopleReady staffing firm to find and coach potential employees.
Job access was one of the main reasons Jessica Ramos, a 20-year-old from Downey, came to the expungement fair with her parents.
Ramos says she had a couple grams of marijuana in her car when she was pulled over in 2015. She insists she wasn’t high at the time. But since she had weed in her car and it showed up in her blood system — as it can for weeks or even months after use — she was charged with a DUI. And that effectively ended her dream of one day joining the police force.
“Nobody wins when there are people in the community that can’t get a job,” said Hernandez of DPA.
Victor Rico, 18, isn’t ashamed of his love for marijuana. He wore a baseball hat with a picture of a lit joint that said “Just Hit It” as he waited – worn skateboard in hand – to meet with a public defender.
Rico was caught smoking marijuana on campus at his Downtown L.A. high school and was expelled, just 20 units shy, he says, of graduation. He came to the DPA fair on the advice of his aunt, looking for help to get his charges downgraded and record sealed for marijuana-related crimes he committed as a juvenile.
“I kind of messed up,” he said. “But I’m trying to get it cleared up.”
Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the massive marijuana dispensary chain MedMen, the DPA plans to put on three more expungement fairs in L.A. County later this year, with the next one coming sometime in June.