After expunging thousands of marijuana cases, Missouri courts are not expected to meet deadline
Sean Farmer, 36, was incarcerated or on probation for more than half of his life, most recently for a marijuana conviction that put him away for about 12 years.
When Amendment 3 passed in Missouri in November, it made recreational marijuana legal and ordered the expungement of all nonviolent marijuana misdemeanors and felonies. Farmer was cautiously hopeful that he would finally be reunited with his girlfriend and children.
“I'm super grateful,” Farmer said. “I got reintegrated with my children (and) my girlfriend. It’s surreal. When I wake up in the morning sometimes I don't know where I'm at, and then I look around, I'm like, oh God, I'm here.”
Another person Farmer was incarcerated with got an automatic expungement and was out in less than three weeks. But Farmer’s case was trickier. Because the authorities never weighed the amount of marijuana he had on his person when he was arrested — about 3.3 ounces — his case couldn’t be automatically expunged.
It took him more than a month in court to get his expungement. In April of this year, Farmer was free.
Under Amendment 3, all nonviolent marijuana-related cases are required to be expunged — wherein the case record is sealed or destroyed and a person is cleared of their charges. The deadline for misdemeanor expungements is June 8, and felonies by December 8. So far, the state has expunged nearly 44,000 cases — more than 10,000 felonies and about 32,500 misdemeanors.
But the state doesn’t know how many cases remain, and experts say the courts likely won’t meet the constitutional deadline.
The trouble with deadlines
Stephen Sokoloff, senior counsel for the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, thinks the deadlines were doomed from the start.
“I think that the amendment was very poorly written and was not drafted with Missouri law in hand,” he said. “So it doesn't actually track a lot of the aspects of Missouri law. As a result, it makes it a lot more difficult for compliance because there's some mashing of square pegs into round holes that has to go on.”
Sydney Ragsdale is an attorney and senior fellow with the University of Missouri-Kansas City Clear My Record Project. She and her team have been working since the amendment passed last fall on expunging the records of people with marijuana convictions. Ragsdale said she’s hopeful that the courts will be able to meet the deadline in the next few days, but she’s skeptical.
“I would love it if they could do it and that would be major kudos to the courts if they could do that,” Ragsdale said. “But I think it's a really tall order. (There’s) not a lot of time, not a lot of resources to do it and it’s tough work that takes them a while.”
Expungements are treated differently in each county. Some, like Jackson and Clay Counties, have cleared marijuana convictions quickly. Jackson County has cleared 826 cases so far; Clay County — 1530.
Ragsdale said prosecutors and judges in other counties put up a fight, delaying the expungements for months or blocking them completely.
“There have been times when it's been really hard and times we didn't think we were going to win our case because there's some resistance,” Ragsdale said. “Not every county voted for this to pass. And that might play a role in some county's reluctance to expunge a bunch of cases."
That’s what happened to Adrian, who didn’t want to share his last name. He was arrested in 2018 for possession. When Amendment 3 passed, he was excited for his records to be expunged. Instead, he was told he wasn’t eligible because the amount of weed he had at the time of the arrest wasn’t specified in the police report.
After months of trying and running into roadblocks on his own — including inconsistent answers from the court about whether he was eligible — he contacted the Clear My Records Project to help him with his case.
Adrian eventually won but believes the process should’ve been easier under the new amendment.
“It shouldn't have been a tricky thing — it shouldn't have been me having to prove my innocence,” Adrian said. “It should have been the clerk doing the work that they get paid for doing to get to the bottom of what exactly I had. I felt like I had to jump through hoops to do it. If I didn't push the envelope and file that petition, or if I would've just took what the clerical notes were initially, even though I knew that I was more than eligible to qualify, I feel like it would've never gotten expunged.”
Clerical issues are a major roadblock to the courts meeting the June 8 and December 8 deadlines. In many instances, like in Farmer’s and Adrian’s case, the amount of marijuana on a person at the time of arrest isn’t on the arrest report.
Paper records slow the process down, making it impossible to automatically expunge records like the amendment stipulates. One court clerk told Ragsdale it takes about an hour and a half to expunge one case.
"Making a hell of an effort" to clear the records
Sokoloff believes the deadlines should have been extended because the amendment doesn’t take into account how much work is involved in clearing records. In most cases clerks have to do the work by hand and manually check each case report.
“I think the deadlines are unrealistic and very well may be unobtainable and just aren’t going to be fully complied with,” Sokoloff said. “I do know that they're making a hell of an effort because I know that the clerk's offices have hired extra people to come in and help. In some places, I think retirees have been asked to come back and help.”
Despite the inability to meet the deadlines, Sokoloff doesn’t think people should blame the courts. As the state moves forward with expunging more felonies instead of misdemeanors, the cases will only get more complicated. Some cases can't be fully cleared because they include additional charges beside those for marijuana.
State court authorities requested a supplemental budget to pay clerks overtime hours for dealing with the records, but the state legislature has not given them any assistance.
Sokoloff said that if the legislature had enacted statutory rules to decriminalize marijuana before the amendment was introduced, the process would have included more realistic guidelines and deadlines.
Farmer is still adjusting to life outside of state supervision. He received some assistance from theLast Prisoner Project when he was released, but says it’s still difficult to get a job or even buy marijuana.
When he was arrested, Farmer was using weed to self-medicate for anxiety and depression. He’s still struggling with his mental health but is scared to even enter a dispensary because of his experience when it was illegal. Still, he’s hopeful others will soon get their expungement.
As for Adrian, he owns his own business now and tries to help others with legal challenges similar to those he faced. He’d already started working before his marijuana conviction was expunged, but now he said he can finally move on.
“It just feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulder,” Adrian said. “I feel free and I’m so happy that I'm able to live my life again because even though I navigated outside of that, it was still a weight on my shoulder.”
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