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Hundreds of Seattle residents who were busted for minor marijuana offenses over the past three decades are now getting the chance to have their criminal records cleared for good. This April, City Attorney Pete Holmes filed a motion to vacate convictions for all misdemeanor cannabis possession cases filed before 2010, when Seattle decriminalized minor pot offenses entirely. "It's long past time we remedy the drug policies of yesteryear, and this is one small step to right the injustices of a drug war that has primarily targeted people of color,” Holmes said in a statement accompanying the motion.
On September 11th, the Seattle Municipal Court approved Holmes' motion, and all seven judges signed an order to create a process for clearing these former cases. “Insomuch as the conduct for which the defendant was convicted is no longer criminal, setting aside the conviction and dismissing the case serves the interests of justice,” the judges wrote. The court's decision will apply to an estimated 542 individuals who were arrested for cannabis misdemeanors between 1996 and 2010.
The court will mail out notices to each eligible person, giving them 33 days to seek a hearing of their case, or object to having their records cleared. After this period, the court will automatically vacate the misdemeanor convictions of any individual that has not chosen one of these alternative options. The ruling does not help Seattle residents with pot misdemeanors dating before 1996, or individuals charged with cannabis-related felonies, because the municipal court does not have jurisdiction over these cases.
“For too many who call Seattle home, a misdemeanor marijuana conviction or charge has created barriers to opportunity — good jobs, housing, loans and education,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement, the Seattle Times reports. Holmes added that Seattle residents should “take a moment to recognize the significance” of this new ruling. “We’ve come a long way, and I hope this action inspires other jurisdictions to follow suit.”
Across the country, a small but growing number of local and state governments are joining Seattle in helping to right the wrongs of decades of disproportionately-enforced marijuana laws. California allows former pot offenders to apply for expungements, but the difficulty and expense of this process has inspired district attorneys in San Francisco, San Diego, and other localities to go the extra mile and clear eligible convictions on their own. Golden State legislators have also passed a bill that would direct state courts to automatically clear these convictions.
This month, district attorneys in two New York City boroughs also announced that they were working on clearing over 20,000 former convictions, and lawmakers in Vermont, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are all pushing legislation to set former pot offenders free from the shackles of prohibition.