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'It was like a cloud over my life.' What clearing pot records means

With no fanfare and no public announcements, the district attorney of Sacramento County has quietly been reducing or dismissing old marijuana convictions for pot crimes that are no longer crimes or are misdemeanors under state law.

Anne Marie Schubert, recently re-elected to a second term as DA, has not said a peep about this publicly, even though doing so during the bitter campaign she won on June 5 over a former underling might have deflected some of the heat she's been taking from Black Lives Matter and other progressives who think she's too conservative.

But going public also might have caused some to call Schubert an opportunist, which is part of why she kept quiet until I heard what her office was doing and reached out to her last week.

"Yeah, this is a good thing," Schubert said by phone earlier this week. "It's not a heavy lift for us to do this, but it's a good lift."

Last week, Schubert met with community leaders convened by Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer, who hopes that Schubert will conduct a public service campaign to get the word out to people whose old marijuana crimes might be reduced or dismissed under Proposition 64, the 2016 voter-approved initiative that legalized marijuana for recreational use in the state.

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Obscured in the hoopla of the passage of legal weed in California was a provision in Proposition 64 that allowed Californians to petition to have certain marijuana convictions reduced or dismissed. Before too many people get the wrong idea, Proposition 64 does not offer blanket absolution for all marijuana offenses. It can provide relief for some people convicted under eight sections of the California Penal Code: (11357, 11358, 11359, 11360, 11362.1, 11362.2, 11363.3 and 11362.4).

All have to do with possession, transportation and intent to sell what is now considered to be small amounts of marijuana or amounts of marijuana that used to result in felonies but are now misdemeanors.

Since Prop 64 was passed, and provided you are 21 or older, you can now legally possess six marijuana plants at your home. You can now carry up to 28.5 grams of marijuana away from your home. But before Prop 64, you could get in big legal trouble — you could become a felon — for possessing, transporting or trying to sell amounts of marijuana that would now result only in a misdemeanor offense.

Marijuana .JPG
A marijuana leaf in the vegetative room at a cannabis cultivation company. Eric Engman Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/AP

Going back as far as 1998, Schubert's office estimates about 6,000 convictions for marijuana possession, cultivation and sale might now be reduced or dismissed under Proposition 64.

Of those 6,000 cases, Schubert's office has reviewed approximately 306. She said her office has not objected to reductions or dismissals in 90 percent of the marijuana petitions it has received. Schubert said her office objects only when the candidate for dismissal or reduction has marijuana offenses that exceed the guidelines of Prop 64..

Ultimately, Superior Court Judge Curtis M. Fiorini makes the final call on whether an old conviction should be reduced or dismissed.

"This is the right thing to do," Schenirer said. "By having old convictions expunged or reducing felonies to misdemeanors, people can improve their ability to get jobs and housing."

Dominique Kelley, a 31-year-old mother of two, is such a person. Now a resident of Fairfield, Kelley said she was nailed with a marijuana possession charge in 2008 in Sacramento County. She described the amount of marijuana found on her as being not much more than the 28.5 grams that people can now carry legally today. Kelley was 20 at the time, with no record. She said she was stunned when she was convicted of felony possession with intent to sell marijuana.

She said she had no idea what that felony conviction would mean. She took responsibility for the marijuana because, even though it wasn't hers, the other people arrested with her had criminal records and she didn't.

"I was trying to make the situation better for other people, but it really hurt my life," she said.

"It was not fair," she said. "I had never been in trouble before. I wasn't on a street corner trying to sell. I was just in a house where (the police kicked the door in searching for someone else). "

"That conviction haunted me for 10 years," she said. "It was like a cloud over my life. I haven't been able to live my life with that on my record."

Earlier this year, Kelley was sought to have her record cleared because she wanted to quit her job as pastry chef and work in education. But no school would take her with a felony conviction.

She called Ryan Raftery, a deputy public defender in Sacramento County, who helped Kelley fill out the one-page document needed to have her record cleared. The document can be found on the website of the Sacramento County district attorney, under the heading "Marijuana Conviction Relief."

In February, her record was completely cleared. She got a job at a Solano County school district, working with kids with disabilities.

"It's meant I can live free," Kelley said. "I can finally live my life. When you have a felony, you can't travel. You can't vote. You can't do anything. ... This has meant everything."

Raftery is working with Schubert's office to spread the word so more people might get the relief Kelley enjoys today. Right now, petitions filed with Schubert's office can be resolved within a matter of days. In cases like Kelley's, where she was applying for a job and needed relief, Schubert said her office can provide same-day service.

Right now, Schubert said she is planning on doing a public service announcement in the fall. She said she will work with Sacramento Superior Court leaders to build a system that can expedite marijuana cases. Some counties, like San Diego and San Francisco, are already moving at a faster pace.

Raftery warns that people do not need to pay lots of money to a private lawyer to fill out the form submitted to Schubert. All that's needed is a phone call to the Sacramento County public defender, 916-874-6411. Raftery said he or other colleagues can help people file their petitions for free. Or you can just go to the DA's website, fill out the form and submit it.

When meeting with community members, Schubert said, some have been surprised she was so receptive.

"The law is the law," she said. Her office is working on translating the marijuana conviction relief form into Spanish. By the end of the year, she hopes, public knowledge of conviction relief will break down any reluctance of some to contact law enforcement. Right now, Schubert's office has not tabulated the racial makeup of marijuana convictions eligible for relief, but that will likely happen in the future.

It speaks well of Schubert that her office began reducing and eliminating marijuana convictions without making it a campaign issue. She also waited until after the election to announce that she was no longer a Republican and had changed her affiliation to "No Party Preference."

After months of being criticized for not doing enough to prosecute police officers who used deadly force on the job, Schubert — through her most recent actions — has demonstrated why she received more than 60 percent of the vote.

She is a measured, fair prosecutor who cares about her community, is not prone to grandstanding and is willing to listen. The more she follows those instincts, the better the chance of justice for all — including those who didn't vote for her.

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