With an announcement last week from Mayor Michael Hancock, Denver revealed itself as the latest U.S. city to try to get more minor marijuana convictions cleared from residents’ records.
The Denver City Attorney’s Office, working with various state agencies, is developing a process to speed up record sealing for certain marijuana-related misdemeanors that occurred before Colorado legalized recreational pot. Hancock said in a Dec. 4 press release that the effort will aid communities “disproportionally impacted by the war on drugs.”
“For too long, the lives of low-income residents and those living in our communities of color have been negatively affected by low-level marijuana convictions,” Hancock said. “This is an injustice that needs to be corrected, and we are going to provide a pathway to move on from an era of marijuana prohibition that has impacted the lives of thousands of people.”
During the 2017 session, the Colorado General Assembly enacted a bill that allowed people convicted of misdemeanors for marijuana use or possession to get those convictions sealed if the underlying behavior would have been legal under Amendment 64, which legalized recreational pot in 2014. According to the Denver Mayor’s Office, more than 10,000 people were convicted of low-level marijuana crimes between 2001 and 2013 in Denver that would be eligible for seal. The Boulder County District Attorney’s Office, which is also planning its own expungement program, identified 4,000 such cases in its records.
Because the city is still in discussions as to how to effectively clear the convictions, details are currently lacking as to what the process might look like. But Marley Bordovsky, an attorney with the Denver City Attorney’s Office, said the city is making progress.
“I’d say we’re very, very close, and we’re currently ironing out particulars,” Bordovsky said.
Marijuana convictions eligible for seal would include misdemeanor or petty offenses where the underlying behavior would be legal today under state law. But that would exclude felony marijuana offenses that were pleaded down to misdemeanors as well as “low-level” offenses that are still outlawed today under Amendment 64, such as public pot consumption, Bordovsky said.
Distinct from Boulder’s program, Denver would assist with sealing marijuana violations both under its municipal code and Colorado state statute, Bordovsky said. The City Attorney’s Office will collaborate with the Denver District Attorney’s Office to facilitate the seal of both city and state convictions.
Outside Colorado, several municipalities are already taking the initiative to help clear minor marijuana convictions from people’s criminal records, including Seattle and Brooklyn, New York.
In October, California enacted a bill to not only help individuals get their marijuana convictions expunged, but install a system to automatically review those records and potentially eliminate them. California voters approved legal recreational marijuana in 2016.
Massachusetts, which also enacted legal recreational marijuana in 2016, held a Massachusetts National Day of Expungement Oct. 27.
“We’ve been working on this for months,” Bordovsky said of Denver’s program. Hancock signed a resolution calling for cities to vacate certain marijuana misdemeanors at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in June.
Since then, the Office of Marijuana Policy and the City Attorney’s Office have been researching possible processes. At first, Denver considered a proactive approach in which it would seek out eligible cases for seal, but that would amount to identifying more than 10,000 cases. “We’re not going to get that to work for legal reasons and resource reasons,” Bordovsky said.
Instead, Denver is leaning toward holding clinics where residents can come get help with sealing their convictions, much like Boulder is planning to hold in January, Bordovsky said. The city is also looking to enable petitioners to apply for seal through online forms.
Adrienne Teodorovic, a contract attorney for criminal defense cases, said the mayor’s announcement is a positive development. But questions persist as to how the program wil be funded and whether the city will assist petitioners with the cost of sealing thousands of marijuana convictions, she said.
People with marijuana convictions can file motions to have them sealed, but “it’s extraordinarily expensive” for defendants, costing them hundreds of dollars in filing fees alone, said Teodorovic, who is a project attorney with the Colorado Collateral Relief Project, which provides offenders with post-conviction legal assistance. Offenders can file waivers for the filing fees, but not all are granted, she added.
Bordovsky said that as the conviction sealing program is shaping up currently, it doesn’t look like petitioners will have a blanket waiver for filing fees, and individuals may still need to show they are indigent in order to file at no cost.
Teodorovic said she hopes Hancock’s announcement won’t just have a retroactive impact on marijuana convictions but also on charges going forward. She hopes that the City Attorney’s Office might take the mayor’s announcement as a signal to place lower priority on low-level marijuana activity that’s still unlawful under Amendment 64, such as public consumption. The socioeconomic impact of even minor marijuana convictions is significant, especially for lower-income communities, Teodorovic said. “When you have to pay court costs and fines, that has a rolling effect on your ability to make ends meet.”
— Doug Chartier