Bill proposes to erase marijuana convictions

DOVER — Lawmakers on Wednesday introduced legislation to give individuals convicted of possession or use of marijuana prior to Delaware’s 2015 decriminalization of the drug a shot at an expungement — essentially wiping the offense from their records.

“It’s an issue of fairness and equity,” main sponsor Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said. “You got arrested three years ago for a half-ounce of marijuana, you have to report that when you’re asked the old ‘have you been arrested and convicted’ question, and if you got cited tomorrow it’d be a civil offense, so it’s just an opportunity to do that.

“As you know, there’s been a lot of expungement, criminal justice reform activity in the building the last few years and so when I was — I’m not even sure why I thought about it, to tell you the truth, but I asked about it because again, I think it’s fair, and somebody said no, hasn’t been done yet.”

The measure, which has bipartisan support, would only apply to individuals who have been convicted solely of possession, use or consumption of 1 ounce or less of marijuana. Those convicted of drug-related offenses twice would not be eligible.

If the bill passes, anyone seeking an expungement could apply through the State Bureau of Identification, which would then notify the courts and law enforcement. An expungement seals a criminal record, effectively erasing the conviction.

According to data provided by state officials, the legislation would affect up to 1,247 individuals convicted between 1977 and 2015.

“A criminal record can make even the most basic and simplest tasks more difficult and, at times, seemingly impossible,” Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Delaware Office of Defense Services, said in a statement. “When the General Assembly decriminalized marijuana in 2015, it was an acknowledgement that people arrested for simple possession should not carry the lifetime collateral consequences that come with a criminal record.

“This bill is an equitable fix to an arbitrary barrier. It allows individuals who were arrested for, and subsequently convicted of, possession of marijuana, prior to decriminalization, the same opportunity to erase this infraction and pursue their goals unimpeded.”

Lawmakers decriminalized cannabis three years ago in a party-lines vote, making possession of no more than 1 ounce by an adult a fine of $100. The General Assembly is currently considering a measure that would legalize pot, but the bill is not expected to pass.

Noting he still opposes legalization, Sen. Lavelle said his proposal is not a sign that bill is gaining support.

He accepted a probation before judgment for possession of marijuana in 1984, according to court records. The charge was stricken from his record but was not properly removed from the court’s data.

He said he was a sophomore in college at the time.

Several states have passed legislation sealing misdemeanor marijuana convictions, and others have proposed expungement measures.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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