In Syracuse, New York, Onondaga Country District Attorney William Fitzpatrick has ordered his staff to dismiss all new and pending marijuana charges this year. The policy shift is just part of the district attorney’s broader plan to wipe decades of cannabis convictions from the record. The move will impact the lives of hundreds of Onondaga County residents, clearing the way to better employment and education opportunities, more housing choices and public benefits.
Syracuse District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick Says Expungement is “A Simple Matter of Justice”
Despite a statewide drift toward decriminalization, marijuana arrests in Onondaga County in upstate New York have been on the rise over the past few years. Even with New York lawmakers closing in on a legalization vote later this year, 160 Onondaga County residents are facing cannabis charges already. In 2018, preliminary Onondaga County Crime Analysis Center data said police made 81 arrests for misdemeanor cannabis-only offenses and issued nearly 2,000 violations.
Not all of those arrests resulted in convictions. In fact, about 90 percent resulted in community service, adjournment or dismissal. Fitzpatrick’s plan won’t clear those records. But the DA’s office estimates roughly a few hundred people will qualify under the new expungement policy. Those with other convictions for more serious charges will not qualify to have their marijuana convictions cleared.
Fitzpatrick’s office is taking a proactive approach to expungement. On Friday, the DA’s office told reporters they’d already begun scouring records to identify qualifying misdemeanor convictions and violations. The DA’s staff will search records back 20 years. Anyone with a marijuana conviction or violation dating prior to 1998 should contact Fitzpatrick’s office.
Onondaga DA’s Plan to Expunge Cannabis Convictions is First of Its Kind in Upstate NY
As legalization and decriminalization expand around the U.S., there’s a growing chorus of elected officials and policy advocates calling for record expungement. But according to the New York State District Attorney’s Association, Fitzpatrick’s plan is the first of its kind in the region. Other Upstate counties have floated the idea, especially since Gov. Cuomo announced a plan to legalize adult-use cannabis by the end of the year. So far, however, no other counties have started the expungement process.
In Onondaga County, that process will face some challenges. Records are old, people’s addresses change, and there are tens of thousands of records to comb through. But Fitzpatrick says his office is taking steps to tell people to contact his staff if they believe they qualify. He’s also directing staff to issue letters to everyone they clear.
The DA’s office is also cautioning people that marijuana is still illegal without a medical license in New York. Police will still arrest people for cannabis offenses. But in Onondaga County, at least, district attorneys will decline to prosecute anyone facing a marijuana-only charge.
Decline-to-prosecute policies, expungement initiatives and other marijuana amnesty measures are rightly on the rise around the U.S. But expungement isn’t the only approach. In lieu of tossing past convictions, many cities are adopting or pursuing policies to seal criminal records for cannabis convictions. But the Onondaga County DA thinks the right move is simply wiping the slate clean. “It’s a simple matter of justice,” he said. “One should not be stigmatized with a criminal record by virtue of the fact they were born too early.”
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