As Seattle Vacates Misdemeanor Convictions, County Mulls Action on Felonies

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, left, looks on as Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks at a news conference Thursday announcing plans for the city to move to vacate misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions. City Council member Bruce Harrell looks on at right. Five years after Washington state legalized marijuana, Seattle officials say they're moving to automatically clear past misdemeanor convictions for cannabis possession. San Francisco recently took the same step. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

On the heels of similar moves in California and Colorado, officials in Seattle announced Thursday morning that the city will move to vacate hundreds of misdemeanor convictions for cannabis possession. Thousands more across Washington could see relief if state and county officials take similar steps.

Roughly 500 criminal convictions could be erased as the result of the actions by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes, the city says. That, however, is just a small sliver of the tens of thousands of individuals convicted of possession in the years before the state legalized. In a statement, Durkan called the effort “a necessary first step of righting the wrongs of the past.”

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“Addressing decades of unjust convictions – and particularly the damage wrought on communities of color – won’t happen overnight,” she said. “We must provide more effective alternatives to prosecution and incarceration through drug and mental health courts, restoring rights and supporting re-entry.”

“In order for our office to undertake this project, we would need some help, because all of our criminal division deputies and staff are already overloaded with prosecuting serious felony crimes.”
Dan Satterberg, King County Prosecuting Attorney

Arrest data from the Drug Policy Alliance indicates that black people were arrested at a rate 2.9 times that of white people. Latinos and Native Americans saw an arrest rate 1.6 times that of whites.

While Thursday’s move could help spur similar moves in other jurisdictions, the move affects just a small portion of Washington’s convictions for cannabis possession. It doesn’t impact, for example, people who were hit with felony convictions for simple possession. It remains a felony in Washington state to possess more than 40 grams of cannabis.

City officials in Seattle don’t have jurisdiction to vacate felony convictions, which were handled at the county level. But in a statement provided to Leafly, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said his office is currently deciding whether to review old felony cases:

When I-502 passed, we were the first prosecuting attorney’s office in the state to dismiss all pending marijuana prosecutions, but we did not undertake this kind of massive historical review. Our office supports the City of Seattle’s action to reduce the impact of old convictions for doing what the state now authorizes. The Municipal Court only saw simple possession cases of under 40 grams. We have jurisdiction for felonies, including selling, growing and possession of amounts with intent to distribute, so our review would necessitate looking at the case file to distinguish cases. We have been following the San Francisco District Attorney’s office to find out more as their standards seem reasonable. In order for our office to undertake this project, we would need some help, because all of our criminal division deputies and staff are already overloaded with prosecuting serious felony crimes.

A spokesperson for King County Executive Dow Constantine said the statement “will stand as King County’s response.”

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In 2003, Seattle voters passed Initiative 75, which made minor cannabis possession the lowest enforcement priority for the Seattle Police Department. Nevertheless, the city continued to bring criminal charges for possession until Holmes took office in 2010.

Seattle officials say there’s no need for individuals with misdemeanor convictions to take action in order to vacate the records. “A motion will be made for all those found to [be] eligible, which will not require any action by individuals.”

Beginning in December 2012, after voters approved Initiative 502 to legalize cannabis for adult use, it was no longer a crime in Washington for people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of cannabis flower, 72 ounces of infused liquids, or seven grams of concentrate.

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At the state level, the Stranger’s Steven Hsieh reports that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office says the governor has pardoned three people convicted of simple cannabis possession. Across the state, more than 129,000 people were arrested for cannabis possession between 2000 and 2010.

Similar moves to reduce, vacate, or otherwise relieve criminal convictions for cannabis are being undertaken in other legal states. Late last month, San Francisco’s district attorney announced his office would dismiss nearly 3,000 misdemeanor cases and review nearly 5,000 felony cases for possible action. The announcement was immediately followed by similar news out of San Diego. And in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper said yesterday that he’s exploring the idea of granting clemency to nearly 40 inmates convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses.