A Missouri man is suing state cops for arresting him over a felony cannabis conviction that had already been expunged by the state.
The incident began shortly after Greene County resident Michael Cunningham was involved in a minor car accident while driving to work. When Highway Patrol officers showed up on the scene, trooper Amanda Kahler noticed that he had a handgun in his vehicle. She asked Cunningham for permission to scan the gun’s serial number to ensure it wasn't stolen, and since firearm possession is completely legal in Missouri, he was willing to comply.
But after running the gun, Kahler told Cunningham that she was arresting him for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Like most states, Missouri prohibits anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony from owning a gun. Cunningham had previously been convicted of felony cannabis possession back in 2002, but that charge was expunged from his records in 2021.
Cunningham explained the situation to the cop, and even showed her an official copy of his expungement form. Regardless, Kahler told him that “she was aware of the expungement statute and its implications, but that she could not accept the certified copy of the expungement order because it could be a fake," according to court documents obtained by the Springfield News-Leader.
The trooper confiscated Cunningham's gun, arrested him, and took him to the Greene County jail where he was booked and fingerprinted. Cunningham is now suing the Highway Patrol, arguing that they violated his 4th Amendment right to freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures.
"The arrest in question was unlawful and without probable cause or warrant," the lawsuit alleges, according to the Springfield News-Leader. "Additionally, as a direct result of Defendants’ unlawful arrest, (Cunningham) missed work and suffered emotional pain and suffering, including public embarrassment from the fact he had to explain to his employer he had been arrested and the fact his co-workers saw him being arrested on their way to work.”
The case seems relatively clear-cut under state law, but federal law could end up causing issues. The feds still technically prohibit anyone who uses cannabis or other illegal drugs from owning a gun. State and federal politicians have challenged that statute, and last month, a federal judge ruled that medical cannabis patients do indeed have the constitutional right to own guns. It remains to be seen whether or not those protections still apply to people who use pot recreationally, though.
Cunningham is also suing the Missouri State Highway Patrol for failing to properly expunge his criminal records. An expungement is supposed to completely remove a criminal conviction from the record books, preventing employers, landlords, and even police from viewing that record. Yet the former felony must still be visible on Cunningham's record, as it proved to be the sole foundation of the arrest.
This may have serious implications for thousands of other Missourians whose cannabis-related criminal charges have recently been expunged. The Show-Me State's new adult-use cannabis law, approved by voters in last November's election, requires Missouri courts to expunge all nonviolent cannabis misdemeanors and felonies by the end of this year.
Since November, state and county courts have expunged over 7,500 cannabis cases, and are working to clear as many as 100,000 by the end of the year. These expungements were intended to give former offenders a second chance by removing the stigma of weed arrests from their records. But if these former crimes are still showing up on criminal records, the law's intent has clearly not been achieved.
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