California County Set To Expunge 11,500 Cannabis Convictions

Santa Clara County is making significant strides towards criminal justice reform.
California County Set To Expunge 11,500 Cannabis Convictions

More than 11,500 convictions for cannabis offenses are set to be expunged or reduced in Santa Clara County, California this week as part of a continuing effort to clear criminal records of actions that are no longer a violation of state law. The expungements are scheduled to be granted on Wednesday by Judge Eric S. Geffon, according to a release from the Santa Clara County Superior Court.

“The Santa Clara County Superior Court is pleased to be able to order the record clearance of thousands of people today,” Presiding Judge Deborah A. Ryan said in a statement that noted the collateral damage of marijuana convictions. “We hope this process will provide a sense of closure to those individuals. Having a clear record also will assist those seeking employment, an issue that is especially important as businesses begin the process of reopening.”

9,000 Defendants Affected

The move by prosecutors in Santa Clara County, home to California’s Silicon Valley, will vacate or reduce in excess of 11,500 convictions for more than 9,000 defendants. The expungements were authorized by Prop. 64, the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized the recreational use and sale of marijuana in California.

The pace to clear the criminal records of low-level marijuana offenses got a slow start due to rules that required defendants to file a petition with the court to have a conviction expunged. Many defendants failed to complete the process, which was time-consuming and often required a court appearance.

The process has been accelerated by a law passed in 2018, which directed prosecutors throughout the state to proactively expunge convictions for many offenses no longer illegal and reduce many others from felonies to misdemeanors. Prosecutors have until July of this year to comply with the law. In February, prosecutors in Los Angeles County announced that 66,000 convictions going back to 1961 had been identified for expungement in collaboration with the nonprofit tech group Code for America.

Last summer, the California Department of Justice sent a list of convictions potentially eligible for expungement to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office. But prosecutors soon realized that the list was not complete and failed to include many convictions that were eligible to be cleared.

“The list that we got from the Department of Justice, while helpful, was really under-inclusive and missed a number of people,” said Assistant District Attorney David Angel.

Prosecutors created a revised list, which after several audits included 13,000 cases, although not all of them will not be fully cleared. Some convictions are for felony offenses that will instead be reduced to misdemeanors.

Some Convictions Will Stand

But not all cannabis convictions are eligible for expungement or a reduction in charges. While Prop. 64 authorized the expungement of many marijuana offenses, those that involved other factors such as the use or possession of firearms, child endangerment, or environmental destruction are not included.

“We certainly took a broad view of interpreting the law to allow relief but the law, Proposition 64, kind of dictates who is eligible and who is not,” Angel said.

The process of identifying and vetting convictions eligible for expungement or reduction was completed through a collaboration between the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, the Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender, the Santa Clara County Technology Services and Solutions, and the Superior Court Information Services Bureau.

“Many months of work have gone into this process and it would not have been possible without outstanding work from each participant,” court officials said.

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