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Seattle Courts to Clear Charges, Convictions for Pre-Legalization Marijuana Misdemeanors

Seattle is making a move towards justice by vacating charges from pot-related misdemeanors from the years before the state legalized weed.

A.J. Herrington

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Seattle Courts to Clear Charges, Convictions for Pre-Legalization Marijuana Misdemeanors
Y. Helfman/ Shutterstock

Municipal court judges in Seattle, Washington, have agreed to vacate misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions that were prosecuted before the legalization of cannabis. The judges’ decision could affect up to 542 defendants in cases prosecuted between 1996 and 2010.

Earlier this month, the judges issued an order outlining a process to clear the records of those with misdemeanor possession convictions.

“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 judges directed the city attorney’s office to provide the court with the last known address of the 542 defendants, who will be notified of the intention to clear their records. The defendants will have the opportunity to object and ask the court for an individualized ruling instead.

City Attorney Pete Holmes said after the order that Seattle should “take a moment to recognize the significance” of the court’s decision, according to media reports.

“We’ve come a long way, and I hope this action inspires other jurisdictions to follow suit,” Holmes added.

Mayor Jenny Durkan said the move has the potential to improve the lives of those with past convictions.

“For too many who call Seattle home,” Durkan said, “a misdemeanor marijuana conviction or charge has created barriers to opportunity — good jobs, housing, loans, and education.”

Correcting Injustice From the War on Drugs

Holmes asked the court in April to dismiss the prior convictions, saying at the time that the move would help correct injustices of the War on Drugs.

“As we see marijuana sold in retail storefronts today, people who simply had a joint in their pocket a decade ago still have a red mark on their records,” said Holmes. “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.”

Mayor Durkan said that clearing convictions can help repair the harm caused by racial bias in the criminal justice system.

“Vacating charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession is a necessary step to correct the injustices of what was a failed war on drugs, which disproportionately affected communities of color in Seattle,” said Durkan. “The war on drugs in large part became a war on people who needed opportunity and treatment. While we cannot reverse all the harm that was done, we must do our part to give Seattle residents – including immigrants and refugees – a clean slate.”

Lorinda Youngscourt, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, praised the filing from the city attorney’s office, noting it contained language to protect non-citizens from negative immigration consequences.

“The City’s motion is a small but meaningful step in reducing the harm the war on drugs has caused communities of color. That harm is ongoing. Racially disparate policing, filing decisions, and sentencing decisions perpetuate the mass incarceration of communities of color. Further, the City’s motion recognizes and ameliorates the likelihood that non-citizens who plead guilty or proceeded to trial on marijuana possession cases from 1996-2010 may not have received constitutionally sufficient legal advice from their attorneys under the requirements of current case law.”

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