A clerk from the Missouri Supreme Court recently shared in a House of Representatives committee meeting on Jan. 17 that the state has expunged 103,558 cases involving people with cannabis convictions. However, many older court records are not digitized, and it is requiring a lot of time and effort on the parts of circuit clerks to comb through every case in search of expungements.
“We’ve had about 100,000 cases expunged, but I can’t tell you, of that, how many more there are to go,” said court clerk Betsy AuBuchon, according to The Missouri Independent. She added that currently, about 10% of cannabis-related cases are reviewed and eligible. However, AuBuchon requested $3.7 million in the 2024 budget to go toward Missouri courts for expungement purposes.
Missouri state law dictates that cannabis tax revenue primarily go back into the state’s cannabis regulation agencies. Anything left over will then be given to the court system to continue funding expungements for eligible cannabis-related convictions through a special assistance program.
In March 2023, state courts would receive $4.5 million either to pay employees overtime, or hire temporary workers to complete expungements. In May, the courts were approved to receive $2.5 million in a supplemental budget.
The Missouri Independent spoke with supreme court communications counsel, Beth Riggert, who stated that circuit courts need to request for a fund reimbursement from the Circuit Court Budget Committee. That committee has provided $4.2 million to county courts so far. “Some circuit courts have advised they have not requested special assistance funds because they did not have current court clerks willing or able to work overtime and/or have been unable to find qualified individuals to provide special assistance because the analysis required is complicated and better done by experienced personnel, such as retired clerks,” said Riggert.
Out of the total 103,558 expungements that have been completed so far, Green County has received the most funds with $940,000, and completed 4,306 expungements. The county with the second-highest expungement number is Laclede County (3,515 expungements and $35,000 in funds), followed by St. Louis County (3,749 expungements and $135,000 in funds), Frankline County (3,200 expungements and $53,000 in funds), and Jackson County (2,900 expungements and $195,000 in funds).
Courts are expected to expunge cannabis-related misdemeanors before June 8, 2024, and all felonies by Dec. 8, 2024.
Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern inquired how long it will take for the courts to clear nearly everything. “We are doing our best,” said AuBuchon, who was unable to provide a solid end date for the work.
Bryan Feemster, a circuit clerk from Greene County, told the news outlet about the process of locating and expunging cannabis-related cases. “You have to look at every count in the case and see whether it actually had to do with marijuana or not,” Feemster said, explaining that clerks must read each case thoroughly.
Feemster hired four previously retired clerks to work on expungements part time and brought on two additional people to sift through boxes filled with thousands of paper files that can’t be pre-screened for expungement. “They don’t do anything else,” Feemster explained of the team of six clerks.
Adult-use cannabis was legalized through a voter initiative in November 2022, called Amendment 3, which went into effect in December that year, followed by sales starting in February 2023. Part of the push for legalization prior to the vote was that it would provide “automatic expungements” for people who served their sentences, so they wouldn’t have to petition the court or attend hearings to complete expungement.
However, due to the lack of digital records, this is much easier said than done. “Let me be the first to tell you there is nothing automatic about that,” AuBuchon said.
Feemster told The Missouri Independent that they’re working as quickly as they can. “From 1989 back, we’re going through every single criminal record to find out whether there’s something in there that might qualify,” said Feemster. “And it is, as you might imagine, very slow and tedious.”
Not all counties are lucky enough to find retired clerks with legal experience to hire. In Johnson County, county clerks have expunged 529 cases, and received $18,000 to conduct the expungement. “I have not done any kind of research to see how far along we are,” said Johnson County circuit clerk, Marcy Anderson, of her team. “We just continue to do it every day.”
Likewise, Jackson County spokesperson, Valerie Hartman, shared that clerks have reviewed 20,000 files, and so far has expunged almost 3,000 cases. First, they have reviewed cases between 1989-2022 that came from the Office of State Courts Administrator, the Missouri Corrections Department, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and next they’re trying to figure out how to access old criminal databases to potentially find more paper case files. “We have no information nor an estimate on how many additional drug cases await our review,” Hartman said.
As of November 2023, county clerks were far behind the deadlines. Missouri attorney Dan Viets, who often defends cannabis cases, contributed to the writing of Amendment 3. Last year, he said in a KMBC report that progress continues to be made regardless of the deadline. “We have always said that as long as the courts, the circuit clerks in particular, are making a good faith effort to comply with the law, to get those cases expunged, that we’ll be satisfied,” said Viets. “They have not technically met the deadline. But on the other hand, we’re dealing with a century of marijuana prohibition in Missouri. So, there are hundreds of thousands of cases.”