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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane considering throwing out minor pot possession convictions

By Nicholas Deshais and Rachel Alexander The Spokesman-Review

People convicted of possessing marijuana in Spokane before the drug was legalized may soon be able to get those convictions thrown out.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart introduced legislation this week to erase Spokane Municipal Court convictions for misdemeanor marijuana possession handed down prior to July 2014.

The impetus for the plan came from Stuckart’s work with the racial equity subcommittee of the Spokane County Law and Justice Council.

“There are racial disparities in our whole criminal justice system. People of color get convicted of these at a higher percentage,” he said. “This is something we can tackle pretty easily.”

The ordinance is modeled after a bill proposed in the Washington Legislature earlier this year that would have allowed people to apply to vacate misdemeanor possession convictions. That bill never made it out of committee.

The idea behind the bill is that “this is no longer a crime, the populace has voted and made a decision for the state,” said city Prosecutor Justin Bingham.

A marijuana conviction on someone’s record can create housing and employment obstacles, Stuckart said.

“It hurts low-income people on housing applications and it hurts employment when they do background checks,” he said.

Bingham said a misdemeanor drug conviction tends to have a larger impact than any other misdemeanor because it can bar people from receiving federal financial aid for college and other assistance.

“The federal government does not care if it’s a misdemeanor, just that it’s drug-related,” he said.

From 1997 to 2012, 1,817 convictions for misdemeanor marijuana possession were delivered in Spokane Municipal Court, according to court data included in a city briefing paper on the proposed ordinance. That number went from a high of 251 convictions in 1997 to 18 in 2012. Ninety percent of people convicted were men.

The legislation only covers municipal court convictions, which ensures convictions weren’t pleaded down from more serious felony charges. Any felony drug charges would be heard in district court, Bingham said.

All municipal court convictions would be eligible for vacation no matter how long ago they happened, Bingham said.

Those seeking to clear their records would have to apply to have the conviction erased. That proposal came from the city prosecutor’s office after its officials determined it would take too much staff time to handle all sentences and track down people who have moved out of Spokane. A blanket approach would also require publishing names in the paper if an address on record was out of date.

“That could be fairly embarrassing to people who have since moved on from something they’ve done in high school or college,” said Bingham.

Stuckart said the council will vote on his proposal Nov. 9.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of these motions, but certainly there are people that will be very excited if this passes council to get these convictions off their record,” Bingham said.

Councilman Mike Fagan said he was unsure whether he would support Stuckart’s proposal, but he would “reach out to the business and property-owning community” to solicit their opinions.

Fagan said Stuckart’s legislation “lacks some specific data” and tied it to “the ban-the-box ideology,” which prohibits employers from asking job applicants if they have a criminal background.

“There is still due diligence that has to be done,” Fagan said, noting that he is meeting with the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest and will discuss the issue with them.

Still, Fagan was leaning away from supporting it at this point.

“Once people do unfortunately make that mistake, they have a debt to society they do have to pay,” he said.