Expunge Factor

District Attorney Jill Ravitch won't wipe the slate for pot offenders

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch says she won’t act to proactively expunge cannabis convictions in the county.

During a press conference on Feb. 2 in Coffey Park, Ravitch responded to questions about the controversial move undertaken by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón last week to clear nearly 40 years’ worth of misdemeanor cannabis possession convictions in that city.

In a proactive gesture of mass expungement celebrated by everyone from cannabis offenders to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic Gascón said his office would erase nearly 3,000 misdemeanor pot convictions dating back to 1975. He also pledged to take a look at reclassifying about 5,000 pot-related felony convictions as misdemeanors.

Why 1975? Well, for one thing, 1975 was a big year in the annals of California cannabis history. That year the state passed SB 85, aka the Moscone Act, which took a big step toward total decriminalization when it reclassified cannabis possession of up to an ounce as a simple misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine.

Forty-plus years later, most news stories about the Gascón decision were larded with questions to the effect of, will other California counties take up the call?

The answer in Sonoma County is no. Ravitch is sticking with the expungement process as set out in Proposition 64.

“You know, at this point I’m not planning to follow the lead of Mr. Gascón,” says Ravitch, who is up for re-election this fall. “I think that there’s a petition process in place and if the voters had wanted us to take the affirmative action of recalling and dismissing all of those cases, it would have been part of the initiative. So I plan to follow within the confines of what the initiative requires. And so I’m working with the public defender and I know that we’ll be reviewing those petitions and we will be taking appropriate action.”

Ravitch explained the process for self-expunging in Sonoma County, which allows people to do it themselves, without a lawyer. “It’s not an expensive endeavor and there’s not always a lawyer necessary,” she says, “so if individuals do want to have their matters expunged, they can actually go on the Sonoma County court website, get the paperwork, file it themselves, come into court themselves and we’ll address them just as we’d address any attorney.”

Proposition 64 grants judicial latitude to expunge pot cases if the underlying crime that gave rise to the original charge is no longer a crime. For example, a person arrested in possession of an ounce of cannabis in 2015 was no longer a criminal as of 2016, and could set out to have the conviction expunged from his or her record.

According to the state’s Judicial Branch online portal, as of Nov. 9, 2016, Proposition 64 authorizes the “resentencing or dismissal and sealing of prior, eligible marijuana-related convictions.”

Between November 2016 and December 2017, counties across the state had received 2,700 resentencing petitions and 1,820 redesignation petitions, on top of 365 petitions for relief involving juveniles. In that time, San Francisco received a total of 232 resentencing or redesignation petitions, according to the court portal.

Alameda, Los Angeles, Riverside, Sacramento and San Diego counties also accepted hundreds of petitions over that time. Sonoma County fielded 24 adult petitions over the same period; Marin County fielded 19; Mendocino, zero. Napa County did not provide data to the court.

Ravitch was in Coffey Park on separate business last week—a joint press conference held with the California Contractors State License Board (CSLB), where Ravitch announced that a big sting had been undertaken on a recent Saturday.

The joint effort between CSLB and the local district attorney netted 13 unlicensed contractors who had advertised their services on Craigslist or elsewhere, and were trying to get work in fire-ravaged areas.

Working without a contractor’s license is typically a misdemeanor, explained Ravitch on a warm morning in fire-scarred Coffey Park. But most of those charged earlier in February also got an enhanced charge for operating without a contractor’s license in a declared disaster zone, which is a felony. Despite the felony enhancements, none of those charged, said Ravitch, was booked into the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility.

And despite the felony charges, which bring a possible three-year prison term upon conviction, a spokesman for the CSLB said that even as it was catching them red-handed, the agency’s ambition is to help bring unlicensed contractors into compliance with state law.

The tough-on-contractor charges announced by Ravitch had a familiar ring to them, given that, in another legal arena, California’s cannabis-legalization protocols also allow for felony enhancements in certain cannabis-related crimes.

According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, “felony enhancements may be charged in aggravated circumstances such as repeat or violent prior offenses, environmental offenses, involvement of minors. Also, prosecutors can charge violators with felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor if more than one person is involved in the crime.”

But Proposition 64 also allows certain cannabis crimes that were felonies to be knocked back to misdemeanors. Those include, for example, the individual cultivation of more than six plants, possession-with-intent charges and the sale or transportation of pot.

Ravitch’s decision to stick with the Proposition 64 expunge-the-conviction protocols rankled some in the county’s pro-pot community.

Oaky Joe Munson, a grower in Forestville, says he’s not surprised that Ravitch won’t go along with the Gascón program. He says he doesn’t care that he has misdemeanor and felony charges on his jacket, but he recognizes it’s critically important issue to some people.

“I don’t care if I have those on my record even though I’ve never been convicted of a felony,” says Munson, whose medical crop was confiscated by local law enforcement in 2015. “The damage is already done when the cops come” and destroy the plants, he says.

Munson’s been providing medical cannabis to AIDS patients for years and says Gascón’s effort “is a step in the direction” that will help people who are trying, for example, to get a government job, or any job for that matter. “I’m glad to see a big metropolitan region go for it,” he says. “For Ravitch to say no, she’s not going to expunge anything, that’s typical. That means she’d have to give up all those [cannabis] convictions. It’s important for her politically to not let those convictions go.”

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