A unanimous opinion recently issued by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts may result in facilitating the expungement of criminal records for thousands of residents with marijuana convictions.
The ruling in Commonwealth v. K.W. clarifies that a 2018 state law provides judges with limited leeway with respect to denying requests for cannabis-related expungements. Rather, the Court’s opinion says that the intent of the law is to provide a “strong presumption in favor of expungement for petitioners” who meet its requirements. The ruling reversed the decision of a municipal court judge who refused to grant a request to expunge a low-level marijuana conviction based upon his opinion that doing so was not in ‘the best interest of justice.’
“If no substantial countervailing concern is raised, judges must grant the petition for expungement,” justices on the Supreme Court concluded.
Under the 2018 law, petitioners can seek expungement relief from the courts for past convictions for marijuana-related offenses that are no longer considered to be a crime. (Massachusetts legalized the personal possession of up to one ounce of cannabis in 2016.) However, data provided by the Massachusetts Probation Service reported that fewer than 20 percent of marijuana-related expungement requests made in fiscal year 2022 were ultimately approved. (Many of these applicants were deemed ineligible for expungement; other requests were denied by the courts.)
Attorney Pauline Quirion, who argued the case before the Court, said the ruling means people with legitimate expungement requests will face fewer barriers to removing past convictions from their criminal records. “It’s a very detailed and thoughtful decision that is going to help a lot of people,” he said. “It will make the process of expungement much clearer and easier.”
NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano stressed the importance of providing pathways for those with cannabis convictions to have their records expunged. “Tens of thousands of Americans unduly carry the burden and stigmatization of a past conviction for behavior that most Americans, and a growing number of states, no longer consider to be a crime,” he said. “Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that public officials and the courts move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”
Over the past few years, lawmakers in nearly two dozen states have enacted legislation explicitly facilitating the process of having select marijuana convictions expunged, vacated, otherwise set aside, or sealed from public view. These laws have led state and local officials nationwide to expunge or seal the records of over two million people with prior cannabis convictions. (In some states, the law provides for the automatic review and expungement of marijuana-related records, while in others, those who wish to have their records sealed must actively petition the courts for relief.) In addition, the Governors of Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, and Washington have also granted an estimated 30,000 pardons to those with low-level marijuana convictions.
Additional information on states’ marijuana-specific expungement laws is available from NORML here.