Missouri courts need state funds to expunge marijuana convictions by deadline: 'It's a mammoth task'
After three months of looking through old marijuana charges, Boone County Circuit Court Clerk Christy Blakemore — along with clerks and judges around the state — has come to a realization.
There’s no quick way to wipe those records clean.
And it’s going to take a lot more money for overtime to go through the mountain of expungements in Boone County by summertime.
“It’s just tough to get much progress on it during regular working hours,” Blakemore said. “If we don’t get an additional appropriation (from the state legislature), then I would fear that a lot of us aren’t going to make the deadlines.”
A huge selling point for those who voted for marijuana legalization, which appeared on the ballot in November as Amendment 3, was the automatic expungement provision — meaning people who have already served their sentences for past charges don’t have to petition the court and go through a hearing to expunge those charges from their records.
The courts must locate their records and make it as if their past marijuana charges never existed.
Like other clerks around the state, Blakemore’s team is trying to meet the deadlines outlined in the constitutional amendment: All marijuana-related misdemeanors must be expunged by June 8 and felonies by Dec. 8.
State court authorities have asked legislators to approve $2.5 million in a supplemental budgetfor circuit clerks to be able to pay their employees overtime hours.
The House Budget Committee has begun work on the supplemental budget and is expected to pass it sometime after lawmakers return from spring break next week.
As they wait for the legislature to approve funding for overtime, clerks statewide have been getting “paid” in vacation time — but that’s time they won’t be able to use while the expungement deadlines are looming, Blakemore said.
In February, circuit courts were given a small amount for overtime through the Missouri Supreme Court Circuit Court Budget Committee — a group of 13 judges and clerks tasked with overseeing state court funds.
But even if legislators approve more money, most circuit courts still don’t know what they need because they’ve never done this before, said St. Louis Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer, who chairs the committee. It’s taking time for the committee to figure out how to disperse the funds.
“It’s a mammoth task,” Ohmer said. “We know it’s an issue in every county and every circuit. And so we’re just trying to slowly figure out what’s the fairest and the most equitable method to proceed.”
‘A brand new business startup’
Statewide, about 10,000 expungements have been granted — meaning charges not people — as of March 6. Clay County is leading the state with 1,340 expungements.
Boone County is at 21, though Blakemore believes their numbers should start to rise quickly now that they’re getting a workflow down.
Greene County is somewhere in the middle with 316 expungements.
Greene County Circuit Clerk Bryan Feemster described the task of digging through decades of files to find every expungeable marijuana charge as a “brand new business startup.”
“We’re making changes on the fly,” Feemster said. “But I think we’re honing in on a process that will work pretty good. It does vary by case.”
When the court budget committee surveyed the circuit courts in December to estimate the number of expungements and overtime needed, Feemster said he thought they could work through a case in about 15 minutes.
He laughs at that now.
“It’s nowhere close to that,” he said.
The first expungement they did in Greene County was for a 1971 case with only one charge — which they thought would be easy.
“It took us about eight hours to go out in the archives and run the paperwork down because it wasn’t necessarily where you expected it to be,” he said. “When we were done with the entire process, including the expungement of it, it was about 12 hours for one individual.”
They’ve learned since then, he said, but there are still no corners the clerks can cut.
A clerk has to physically open the electronic file on Casenet or the written file in archives and go through to make sure the charge is for marijuana, and under three pounds.
Then it goes to the judge’s desk. If the judge approves it, it goes back to the clerk where they have to redact the charge from every page of the file.
The redacting has been the biggest eye opener, Feemster and Blakemore agreed.
It takes one of Blakemore’s more “seasoned” clerks a little over an hour to redact all mentions of the marijuana in a case that hasn’t been pending long.
But in cases where the marijuana charge is among multiple counts and that spanned over years, clerks have to redact every mention of marijuana on years of docket entries, motions and filings.
It takes much longer than an hour, she said.
More funding to pay employees
Feemster says if courts get more funding, some of it will go towards simply hiring people to lift heavy boxes.
“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of lifting going on,” he said. “These boxes, they’re stacked up to the ceiling…about 10 feet high probably in those archives. So it’s up and down steps and heavy boxes, and we’re gonna have to have some help with that.”
Blakemore said the county can’t speed things up by quickly hiring and training temporary employees because this is a complicated process.
“It’s not that easy,” she said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh here, do these 10 steps,’ and it’s done. I would still kind of feel like I’d had to come back behind them and double check their work. It’s just not worth the effort.”
Her team is now coming in on Saturdays to try and make a dent in the thousands of records they have to sift through. Getting paid time-and-a-half instead of in vacation time makes working weekends more enticing, she said.
While it’s called “automatic expungement,” it’s actually pretty far from automatic, Ohmer said.
As a judge, he’s been looking through his cases with drug charges. Courts normally respond to motions and petitions, Ohmer said, so the process of searching to find these charges is brand new and time consuming.
“If someone files a motion for expungement, well that certainly can be done,” Ohmer said. “But if it doesn’t happen, then the court has to dig through thousands and thousands of files going back decades and beyond.”
Each expungement requires someone with legal knowledge going into each individual file, he said.
“There’s no easy method to do that, frankly, at all,” Ohmer said. “And so that’s the tedious part of it.”
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom and a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.