Nearly 400 New Yorkers just got years-old cannabis convictions wiped from their criminal records, thanks to a joint effort from legal advocates, defense lawyers, and Manhattan's top prosecutor.
Last April, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. joined several legal advocacy groups and three anonymous plaintiffs in bringing a class-action suit against the city courts. This suit argued that the three plaintiffs' former cannabis convictions, along with the convictions of 363 other New Yorkers, should be sealed under New York Criminal Procedure Law § 160.59.
This law, enacted in 2017, allows individuals to clear old convictions from their criminal records, including minor marijuana possession misdemeanors. In order to be eligible under this law, applicants must have no other misdemeanor or felony convictions anywhere in New York within the past decade, and must not have any current arrests or other pending criminal charges.
It is estimated that around 600,000 New Yorkers are eligible to take advantage of this law, but to date, only 1,279 have done so. Normally, anyone wishing to apply for this relief must file a sworn affidavit, a lengthy process that has discouraged many eligible individuals from proceeding. The class-action suit asked the court to bypass this process and immediately seal the records of every minor pot offender named in the suit.
“This new approach addresses one of the biggest challenges at the heart of the current sealing process,” said Emma Goodman, attorney with the Legal Aid Society, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Filing individual actions is far too cumbersome and needs to be simplified. Despite New York’s recent efforts, too many people are still prevented from leading the successful and rewarding lives they deserve. Until the sealing law changes, we are using all of the tools at our disposal to help as many people as we can.”
On July 22nd, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Carol Edmead granted the petition, sealing the records for all 366 individuals named in the suit.
“We are proud to be part of this effort to seal hundreds of marijuana offenses that will allow our clients to move forward with their lives,” said Seth Steed, Managing Attorney of Neighborhood Defender Service’s criminal defense practice, in a statement. “One of the devastating consequences of mass incarceration is that it has saddled millions of people with criminal records. These individuals face tremendous barriers to employment, housing, education, voting and equity in general.”
“There’s no reason a conviction for smoking or possessing marijuana should follow New Yorkers for life,” Vance said in a statement. “I was honored to work with defense providers to seal these records and remove unnecessary obstacles to employment, housing, education, and other opportunities for hundreds of New Yorkers. This class action transforms New York’s complicated sealing laws by making sealing proactive, instead of requiring people who are eligible for sealing to navigate a complex application process.”
In a city notorious for the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws against people of color, Vance is one of the rare city leaders who has actually made progress towards righting these wrongs. Last year, Vance announced that Manhattan prosecutors would stop prosecuting minor weed offenses. The Manhattan DA's office has also been working to help thousands of minor pot offenders clear their criminal records for good.
“But civil sealing only goes so far,” Vance noted. “We must eliminate the needless collateral consequences associated with the criminalization of marijuana by legalizing its recreational use once and for all.”