SEATTLE -Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes filed a motion Friday asking the Seattle Municipal Court to vacate all convictions and dismiss all charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession that were prosecuted in a period before pot was legalized statewide.
In a statement, Holmes called the motion “one small step to right the injustices of a drug war that has primarily targeted people of color.”
“As we see marijuana sold in retail storefronts today, people who simply had a joint in their pocket a decade ago still have a red mark on their records,” he said.
The motion argues the court should act because possessing a small amount of marijuana is no longer illegal in Washington. It states that such action would “promote the interests of fairness and judgment.”
“A drug conviction, even for the misdemeanor offense of possession of marijuana, can have significant negative collateral consequences affecting a person’s employment opportunities, education options, qualification for government benefits and programs, travel and immigration status,” Holmes wrote.
“African-Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Caucasians, even though both groups consume marijuana at similar rates,” the city attorney wrote.
“The perception among many persons that enforcement of drug laws discriminates against African Americans has profound adverse effects on their cooperation with law enforcement, respect for the law and participation in the court system.”
Holmes has said he believes the move would wipe away 500 to 600 convictions from the late 1990s, when Seattle took over misdemeanor marijuana cases from King County, until 2010, when he stopped such prosecutions as a matter of policy.
The city attorney and Mayor Jenny Durkan announced their intention to have the convictions vacated at a news conference at Rainier Community Center in February, with Durkan describing the action as one way to help right the wrongs of what she called a failed “war on drugs.”
The mayor, a former U.S. attorney, said small-time pot convictions have unfairly prevented people from obtaining housing, credit, jobs and degrees.
At the time, Holmes said he planned to file a motion the next week. That timeline was pushed back, with his office citing the unusual nature of the effort and a desire to make the dismissals count under federal immigration law.
Under a 1996 law, immigration courts define convictions more broadly than do criminal courts, so noncitizens can run into problems despite their convictions having been vacated.
To render marijuana convictions moot under immigration law, a court must determine they had no valid basis from the start, Matt Adams, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project legal director, told The Seattle Times last month.
In the motion filed Friday, Holmes stipulates that noncitizens convicted between 1996 and 2010 in Seattle were not adequately advised about immigration consequences, such as the deportation risks of a guilty plea.
When Holmes and Durkan initially announced their plan, Seattle Municipal Court Presiding Judge Karen Donohue expressed support for the idea. Donohue was subsequently appointed to a King County Superior Court seat, and Durkan appointed Faye Chess to replace her. Ed McKenna is now the city court’s presiding judge.
“The war on drugs in large part became a war on people who needed opportunity and treatment,” the mayor said in a statement Friday. “While we cannot reverse all the harm that was done, we must do our part to give Seattle residents – including immigrants and refugees – a clean slate.”
Durkan added, “I want to acknowledge that we would not be here today without the advocacy many other members of our community who have been fighting for restorative justice.”
The King County Department of Public Defense is supporting Friday’s motion. In a statement, director Lorinda Youngcourt called it “a small but meaningful step in reducing the harm the war on drugs has caused communities of color.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.