DC Record Sealing Bill to Help Many Convicted of Minor Marijuana Offenses

Earlier this month, the DC City Council voted unanimously to advance a bill that would permit many persons previously convicted of a crime that is now decriminalized or legalized the ability to seal all record of their arrests and related court proceedings. The bill, titled the “Record Sealing for Decriminalized and Legalized Offenses Amendment Act of 2014,” was first introduced in September 2013 in an effort to allow those convicted of non-violent, marijuana possession offenses to seal their criminal records. The council’s Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety amended the bill in September 2014 to expand its coverage to any offense which has been decriminalized or legalized since the date of conviction. The bill will require a second vote by the council, signature by the mayor, and a successful congressional review period before it takes effect. Needless to say, for those facing the consequences of a misdemeanor or felony marijuana possession arrest or conviction, the law would provide much needed relief.

Record Sealing Under the Old Law

For nearly a decade, defendants who were convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession were considered eligible for a record sealing motion only after a period of eight years from the date they were released from jail or probation and only after they had paid all fines to the court. Defendants convicted of felony marijuana possession could not seal their records under any circumstance. Consequently, many of these defendants were unable to find employment despite being well-qualified, rent an apartment despite a history of on-time rent payments, or attend educational programs and obtain a degree despite prior success in schooling.

Recording Sealing Under the New Law

The new law will open a new way forward for many of these people who have suffered serious roadblocks and overly punitive punishment. A defendant’s arrest, charge, or conviction must have been decriminalized or legalized after the date of the arrest in order for it to be eligible for consideration under the new law. Furthermore, a defendant’s motion to seal may only be granted if the defendant was not initially arrested for or charged with a more serious crime in conjunction with the decriminalized offense. For example, if a defendant was initially charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana, an offense that is still illegal in the District, but later pleaded guilty to simple possession of marijuana, an offense which is decriminalized, the plea-bargained charge would not meet eligibility requirements for the individual to have the record sealed.  However, the law also requires the government to prove that the defendant’s conduct has not been decriminalized or legalized; meaning that if a defendant files a motion to seal a misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction and the government fails to prove the defendant was originally arrested for felony distribution, the motion will still be granted.

If a defendant’s offense qualifies for sealing under the new law, the judge who reviews the defendant’s motion must seal all records of the offense. This is a change from the old record sealing law, in which judges were offered great discretion in deciding whether to grant or deny a defendant’s motion. This often led to inequitable results in which similarly situated defendants were treated much differently by judges depending on the individual judge’s view of record sealing.

Effective Record Sealing and Expungement

The new law is a huge improvement over the old record sealing law for those looking to put a troubled past behind them and start anew. It addresses many of the issues that the original law failed to address and will provide defendants who were denied relief under the old law with a real chance to move on with their lives and complete their path to success.