D.C. Council could seal some marijuana convictions

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - The D.C. Council is considering a bill that would seal the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana possession, but only in cases that did not involve violence. The bill is being drafted for if – and when – the District government decriminalizes marijuana.

That effort appears to have the political support needed from the D.C. Council and Mayor Vincent Gray. It would making future possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense punishable by fine. This new record-sealing bill would apply to past offenses.

District resident Kevin Gordon-Cruz is publicly pushing the D.C. Council to retroactively seal past arrests and convictions, including his own.

Gordon-Cruz said, “When employers see [a prior drug conviction], when it pops up from their search, and it says felony, it raises a red flag.”

Gordon-Cruz said a mistake he made nearly a decade ago in his early twenties is still haunting him. His arrest for marijuana possession got him rejected by military recruiters and other potential employers. Today, he said he is homeless.

He acknowledged that – even if his record is sealed – testifying before the Council about his conviction could impact his future employment prospects, but he said he hopes speaking publicly about his story will put a face on the issue and help reduce stigma associated with having a criminal record involving a minor drug offense.

Gordon-Cruz testified along with other decriminalization advocates, who say a prior arrest or conviction can have many consequences. Dan Riffle with the Marijuana Policy Project recited several of the impacts his organization has documented nationwide. “Loss of student financial aid, adoption, second amendment rights, public service assistance like welfare or food stamps,” he said.

This pending D.C. Council legislation would seal criminal records in cases involving possession of less than an ounce of marijuana that did not involve violence.

But Deputy Attorney General Andrew Fois testified that would put an undue burden on courts and prosecutors. He said the Gray administration supports a statute already on the books that allows judges to seal these records after weighing factors in each case.

Fois said, “[Judges are] fair every day, finding people guilty and innocent. This is one of the easier jobs that they have.”

But public defenders say the current law does not go far enough.

“If we want sometimes people still have to live with [a criminal record for marijuana possession], leave it to the judge's discretion,” said Laura Hankins from the D.C. Public Defender Service. “But if the Council says we've decriminalized it. Whatever it is, we decide is no longer a crime, I don't know why we'd leave it up to individual judges who might feel differently.”

Council members said this record sealing bill is still a work in progress and it will come after marijuana is decriminalized. That bill is expected to become law, but it has yet to come up for a vote.