In 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a process for the review and vacation of the criminal records of those previously convicted of low-level marijuana offenses. And now, only months after the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an order providing for the automatic dismissal and expungement of marijuana offenses from people’s records, courts have dismissed or vacated approximately 362,000 marijuana cases.
An additional 125,000 to 150,000 New Jersey residents could be eligible to have marijuana-related records automatically expunged by the courts. Those New Jerseyans with marijuana cases not automatically expunged can file a motion with the court.
Vineland defense attorney, Michael Hoffman, said the charges expunged do not include those connected to criminal offenses outside of the order. For example, a person charged with a marijuana offense alongside traffic violations will have their cases kept on the record. Hoffman also called the process to obtain a certificate confirming expungements “convoluted.”
“In a COVID world, they created a brand-new process that requires you to appear in person and present photo identification,” Hoffman said. “That’s just to determine if you were subject to and got the benefit of automatic expungement.”
The paperwork and process required to confirm one’s records have been cleared can be daunting. It often takes more than a year to expunge someone’s records, and doing it without legal help can be difficult to impossible. Furthermore, people who don’t meet the criteria for the automatic process may likely need legal assistance to file for a traditional expungement.
“There should be upwards of millions of cases,” said Chirali Patel, an attorney with Pashman Stein Walder Hayden. She said she hopes the state re-examines those cases where people plead guilty to reduced charges (like loitering in a known drug zone) to avoid fines associated with their initial marijuana offenses and finds a way to clear them, too. Because those charges were changed, they aren’t automatically captured in the process.
“Decriminalization and legalization are trying to work hand-in-hand,” Patel said. “Of course, this is just one step. Dealing with the collateral damage of having had a record — it still prevented them from so much. They’re finally getting to the starting line.”
This year Governor Murphy signed separate legislation legalizing adult-use marijuana possession and sales.