Bill creates ‘fast-track’ clearance of misdemeanor pot convictions

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Aprominent lawyer hopes to make it easier for people with misdemeanor marijuana convictions to clear their names.

Robert Sand, a Vermont Law School professor and former Windsor County State’s Attorney, is promoting a bill, H.865, that would create a “fast-track” expungement process for people who have misdemeanor convictions.

The legislation follows the enactment last month of H.511, which legalizes the possession of up to 1 ounce of pot and the cultivation of two mature and four immature marijuana plants. Legalization goes into effect July 1.

The new law permits a person to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. It will still be illegal to possess more than an ounce of marijuana. Possession of more than 1 ounce will be a misdemeanor offense; possession of 2 ounces will be a felony offense.

Currently, the expungement process for a misdemeanor begins after five years. Under the proposed legislation, a person convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana offense would be eligible to start the expungement process after completing a sentence and paying a penalty to the court. The proposed bill would also allow people who are convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession under the new pot law to seek expungement.

The Vermont House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the legislation this week, but took no action.

Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, said this week that the administration would need to learn more about the proposed legislation before taking a position on it.

Sand, the founding director of the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, said the legislation recognizes that 1 to 2 ounces is still criminal and “it would put it on the fast track option for expungement.”

“All that means is the person gets to ask the court to expunge the record, it doesn’t automatically guarantee it,” Sand said.

A petition for expungement is reviewed by a state’s attorney and a judge, Sand said. If a state’s attorney objects to an expungement petition, ultimately a judge would decide the matter, he said.

“As someone who strongly believes in restorative justice, there are few things quite as restorative as returning someone to a clean criminal record, and so a broad and robust and expungement law that is widely used is a good thing for the state,” Sand said.

“We have a pretty well-oiled mechanism for obtaining criminal convictions. I think a fair justice system ought to develop an equally well-oiled mechanism for obtaining expungements and we don’t have that yet.”

A misdemeanor marijuana conviction can make it difficult for a person to obtain a job, housing and loans, according to Sand. Statistics showing how many people would be affected by the proposed legislation were not readily available.

“The mere existence of an old marijuana conviction can have a downward drag on an individual’s employability, which ultimately has a downward drag on the economic growth of the state,” Sand said.

Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said in an interview that he does not oppose the legislation. Typically, misdemeanor marijuana offenses in Washington County are referred to a court diversion program.

“Since they are being sent to diversion, in most cases when successfully completely it’s already resulting in the record being sealed,” Thibault said. “So for the record to then be expunged I think confers a greater benefit to the individual, but isn’t inconsistent with how we’re already treating and assessing these cases.”

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