A Manhattan, New York Supreme Court Justice has ordered the sealing of more than 300 cannabis possession cases following a successful class action petition brought in part by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the Legal Action Center, Community Service Society, the Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, Neighborhood Defender Service and pro bono counsel Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.
The affected class members have convictions for low-level possession with no other misdemeanor or felony convictions anywhere in the state, who have no New York convictions for the last 10 years, and have no other pending charges or undisposed arrests.
The relief is permitted under a 2017 state law that allowed people to apply to have their criminal records sealed after at least 10 years have passed. To date, just 1,279 individuals have had their records sealed under the program; the Manhattan D.A.’s office estimates that at least 600,000 people are eligible for relief under the program.
In a statement, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Jr. supported legalizing cannabis – which failed to get a vote in the legislature last session despite support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo – adding that there is “no reason a conviction for smoking or possessing marijuana should follow New Yorkers for life.”
“I was honored to work with defense providers to seal these records and remove unnecessary obstacles to employment, housing, education, and other opportunities for hundreds of New Yorkers. This class action transforms New York’s complicated sealing laws by making sealing proactive, instead of requiring people who are eligible for sealing to navigate a complex application process.” – Vance, in a press release
Despite lawmakers not passing cannabis legalization reforms, they did pass a law raising the threshold for cannabis possession under the state’s decriminalization law. That bill, signed by Cuomo last month, included provisions to automatically expunge low-level cannabis crimes from criminal records.
Basima Hafiz, Supervising Attorney at New York County Defender Services, said that the “War on Marijuana” had a disproportionate effect on “vulnerable communities in New York City,” making it harder for minorities to get “good jobs, safe housing, and affordable student loans.”
“But the state legislature can and must act quickly to legalize cannabis for personal use and expunge the records of all people previously convicted of marijuana offenses,” she said in a statement. “Piecemeal litigation like this is only a Band-Aid – legalization, expungement and community reinvestment are the cure.”
According to 2018 New York City arrest statistics, 89 percent of those arrested for cannabis possession in the Big Apple were black or Hispanic – just 8 percent were white.
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