As the Maryland criminal code continues to evolve with the times there is an increasing need to address the issue of expungement. Maryland has a fair and user-friendly expungement process, and in most cases, there is no fee to apply. Lawmakers already did away with the $30 application fee for all criminal cases where there was a dismissal, nolle prosequi, STET or PBJ. The one problem with the expungement process though is that most lay people do not realize they are eligible to apply. This is especially true for defendants who were found guilty of offenses that are no longer crimes (such as possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana), defendants with older cases and those who live in other states. This year the legislature is taking steps to assure uninformed defendants can still reap the benefits of the Maryland expungement process. Or better stated, to assure uniformed defendants do not continue to suffer collateral consequences such as difficulty finding employment due to prior criminal charges.
There are two bills in Annapolis that are currently up for debate that would establish procedure for the courts to automatically seal or expunge cases without requiring the defendant to apply. The bill that is currently in the Senate calls for the courts to automatically expunge all older cases involving only the possession of marijuana by October of 2022. The bill would also require expungement of all new marijuana cases to commence 4 years of the disposition date. In cases where there are other criminal counts, expungement of the marijuana counts must be completed by October of 2028. This particular bill has received push back from the Chief Judge of the District Court as well as the Baltimore County State’s Attorney, who have argued that automatic expungement would be too large a burden for the courts and prosecutors to handle. The expungement process requires an answer from the state and multiple orders to be signed and sent to the various organizations that keep records of criminal cases. This includes police departments and the district court clerk’s office, who must then file certificates of compliance after the files are destroyed. Automatic expungement would certainly cause an immense amount of work at one time should this bill become law.
The House of Delegates bill proposes a solution that would require exponentially less paperwork for government offices. This proposal would require the courts to automatically seal prior marijuana cases from public view after an enumerated time frame. The process of sealing would be a matter of simply blocking the case from appearing on the popular Maryland Judiciary Case Search web site. This process is similar to what occurs with older payable traffic citations and civil marijuana citations. The supporters of the bill argue that the main purpose of preventing prejudice against defendants with marijuana cases would be addressed through the sealing process.
Regardless of which bill passes, the underlying motivation may have more to do with getting a head start on what seems like inevitable legalization of marijuana. Legalization is not realistic for this year, but lawmakers are wise in looking to establish a foundation to address all the other issues that will come with legalization. It is simply unjust to have a government funded database that lists defendants with criminal marijuana convictions once recreational marijuana is legal, regulated and taxed. There is no reason to wait any longer to seal all prior marijuana possession cases, and the hope is that this process will begin in October.
Benjamin Herbst is a Maryland criminal defense lawyer who specializes in possession with intent to distribute marijuana and narcotics. He also defends clients in drug possession cases, and cases involving firearm possession in a drug trafficking crime. Benjamin handles cases in all Maryland jurisdictions including Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Contact Benjamin anytime at 410-207-2598 for a free consultation about your case.
Sentate Bill 699, magleg.maryland.gov.