San Francisco DA Expunges More Than 9,000 Pot Cases

By Paul Gaita 03/01/19

The move makes San Francisco the first county in California to fully comply with the requirements of the state's recreational marijuana legalization bill.

San Francisco DA has expunged nearly 10,000 pot cases from criminal records

Calling it a "matter of dignity," San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced that he will expunge 9,362 marijuana-related convictions—some dating back to 1975—and reduce felony and misdemeanor charges to misdemeanor and infraction, respectively.

The expungement is a joint effort between the DA's office and the nonprofit, Code for America, which uses an algorithm to identify eligible cases.

The move makes San Francisco the first county in California to fully comply with the requirements of AB 1793, a regulation of Proposition 64—the state's recreational marijuana legalization bill—which required automation of the charge reduction or expungement process for eligible marijuana convictions.

Prior to Gascón's announcement on February 25, the San Francisco Chronicle noted that just 23 people petitioned to have their cases reclassified or expunged. The newspaper cited Gascón's assessment that the low number was due to the difficulty of the process, which required an attorney and took considerable time and effort to complete.

But the partnership with Code for America, which was launched in May 2018, offered a chance to automate the process by using a computer-based algorithm dubbed "Clear My Record." Prior to that, Gascón's office had identified some 3,000 cases eligible for expungement.

According to the Associated Press, the program quickly determines eligible cases and then automatically fills out the forms required by the court to process expungement. At Monday's announcement, Gascón said that the work had been completed ahead of the expected timeframe for completion—which was initially set at a year's time—and under budget.

"It's incumbent that we, as law enforcement leaders, continue to evolve how we advance fairness and public safety in our respective communities," he said. "I hope that our success with Code for America can act as a catalyst for other leaders looking to engage in similar innovative and out-of-the-box methods to reform and rethink what our criminal justice system looks like."

Code for America director Jennifer Pahlka said that her organization was already working with several other district attorneys in California to provide the same service for their marijuana cases. 

Prosecutors in cities across America have already launched or announced similar expungement efforts, including Baltimore, Seattle and Chicago; New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced the vacation of more than 3,000 outstanding warrants for misdemeanor and violation cases involving cannabis consumption and possession in September 2018.

Expungement and reduction of these charges can allow thousands of individuals to pursue housing, job and educational opportunities that in may cases were not available to them because of their convictions.

"Even convictions from many years ago can have an impact on people's lives now, and this will ensure that it doesn't happen," said Drug Policy Alliance deputy state director Laura Thomas to High Times. "We hope that other prosecutors around the country follow Gascón's lead."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.