PROVIDENCE - Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell on Friday unveiled the court rules for potentially thousands of Rhode Islanders to clear their records of past marijuana charges, given the state's recent move to legalize the use and sale of recreational cannabis.
Suttell issued an executive order Friday laying out the court's procedures for expunging misdemeanor and felony marijuana possession charges and civil violations from people's records in keeping with the law passed last May legalizing the possession and home-growing of cannabis for adults age 21 and older.
The order reflected state lawmaker's recognition of the "significant negative impact" felony, misdemeanor conviction for low-level, non-violent marijuana possession charges had upon people's lives. As such, the law empowered the chief justice with the authority to enact expungement procedures.
Under the legislation, any prior civil violation, misdemeanor or felony conviction for possession of marijuana that has been decriminalized will be automatically erased from court records.
While more serious offenses such as intent to deliver marijuana, or manufacturing, will remain intact.
The state's recreational marijuana law legalizes possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and up to 10 ounces at home for people 21 years of age and older. It makes possession of one to two ounces a civil violation and also allows people to possess three growing plants and three dried plants at home.
Advocacy groups had lobbied hard for an expungement provision, emphasizing how simple possession charges had historically hurt members of minority communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs.
Those who long pushed for legalization hailed Suttell's order as a vital and far-reaching step.
"I'm really glad to see this process moving forward. Our coalition worked hard to ensure automatic record clearance would be included in the law, and this executive order is the crucial first step in that process," said Jared Moffat, state campaign manager of the Marijuana Policy Project, which lobbied for legalization for years. "Tens of thousands of people will get relief as a result. Rhode Island is contributing to an encouraging trend we're seeing in more and more states, where legalization policies are coupled with efforts to undo the decades of harm caused by prohibition."
Suttell's order directs Superior and District Court judges as well as Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal magistrates to implement expungement procedures within the next three months.
All three courts will identify cases in which possession of marijuana was the sole offense resulting in a civil violation or judgment of conviction based on either a finding of guilt or no contest plea. Those cases will be eligible for expungement regardless of a prison term, suspended sentence, probation term or other punishment imposed, even if the sentence has not been fulfilled.
If the courts determine the criminal record is to be expunged, the chief judge or magistrate will enter an order erasing the record. All references to it will be removed from public review and sealed.
In addition, the order establishes that the courts provide a list of cases deemed eligible for expungement to the attorney general's office prior to striking them from the record. The courts will then send a record of the expungement to the attorney general's office and the police department that initially brought the charges.
Suttell directs the courts to implement security measures and review processes to ensure that only eligible cases are stricken.
The expungement of civil violations will also be sent to the state Division of Motor Vehicles. A petitioner may also request that an expungement record be transmitted to an agency known to possess the record of conviction.
The order dictates, too, that all three courts similarly identify cases in which marijuana possession charges or civil violations, now decriminalized, were among an array of charges an individual faced. Those possession charges will likewise be eligible for expungement, regardless of the sentence, though the criminal case in its entirety and all records of other criminal convictions or violations will remain in force and available for public review.
If the courts determine the criminal charge is to be expunged, the chief judge or magistrate will enter an order erasing the eligible charge and all references to it will be removed from public review and sealed by July 1, 2024.
A similar process is in place to notify the attorney general's office of charges set to be stricken, as well as security precautions to make sure that only eligible charges are erased.
Suttell's order specifies that anyone may request expungement of a qualifying conviction or civil violation by submitting a written request to the appropriate court. All fees associated with filing a written request for expungement will be waived.
Written requests for expungement may be submitted in person or via electronic mail to the Superior and District Courts' Clerk's Office in each county, as well as the Traffic Tribunal Clerk's Office.
Requests for expedited expungements should include the defendant's name, date of birth and case number. Expedited expungements should be reviewed and entered, if appropriate, within five business days of being submitted, under the court order.
A review of judicial records shortly after the passage of the legalization law found about 27,000 cases eligible for expungement where possession of marijuana was the one and only charge - and "thousands more" in which possession was among multiple charges someone faced.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Advocates hail court's `crucial first step' in clearing marijuana records
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