Over the past four decades, Nevada County has not shied away from prosecuting marijuana offenses.
A 2003 article in The Union detailing a cultivation bust offered a typical mindset by law enforcement, after a neighbor reported a Nevada City man for growing 30 plants. The suspect had a doctor’s recommendation for medicinal marijuana, but Nevada County Sheriff’s Narcotics Task Force member Bill Evans noted that was three times the legal limit.
“One person cannot use all of the marijuana he was growing,” Evans told the reporter at the time, adding. “Don’t grow drugs if you don’t want to get arrested.”
But now, hundreds of local convictions for marijuana cultivation and sales are on track to go away. Literally.
On June 24, the Nevada County District Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss nearly 600 prior marijuana convictions, and reduce more than 50 such felonies to misdemeanors. The cases span four decades, beginning in 1973 and running into late 2016, and cover convictions on four charges: possession of concentrated cannabis, cultivation of marijuana for sale, possession of marijuana for sale, and transportation of marijuana for sale.
The two motions stem from the enactment of Proposition 64, passed in November 2016, and expanded by the Legislature in 2018. The new law directed prosecutors to identify past convictions that were potentially eligible for reduction or dismissal, explained Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh.
“The laws have changed significantly, obviously,” Walsh said. “We were directed to go through (the convictions) and go through a process, where we were trying to determine retroactively who was impacted by the changes in the law.”
Walsh said it has been a months-long process of wading through the data sent by the California Department of Justice, with the help of Code for America, a nonprofit group that helped develop a software tool to analyze the data.
“We went through it and made two key dewterminations,” he said. “One, if there were someone who, if they were prosecuted today, if it would have just been an infraction or not illegal, then we dismissed it entirely. And if it would be a misdemeanor presently, we went through and reduced it to a misdemeanor.”
Of the 597 convictions that were to be dismissed, nearly 40% stemmed from cases filed in the 1980s, with another 30% dating back to the 1990s. Only 14 of the cases are from the 1970s. Nearly half were convictions for possession for sale, while about a quarter were cultivation convictions.
“The political theory was to make the penalty for drug use so severe that the sellers would be driven out of business. It didn’t work,” said local attorney Stephen Munkelt, who’s defended many marijuana cases over the years.
“The Nevada County district attorney is finally doing what the law requires, and allowing for the dismissals and relief from convictions that will benefit so many,” Munkelt said. “This cleanup cannot undo all the harm done by prohibition over the decades, but it is a very significant step in the right direction.”
Walsh acknowledged that for a defendant with other charges, these dismissals would have little impact.
“For some individuals, if you think about the spirit of Prop 64, these are people who were not criminals, they just using marijuana, and that was their only vice, this will provide relief — people who were otherwise law-abiding citizens.”
Walsh said his office gave defendants the benefit of the doubt, asking to dismiss cases if the circumstances were unclear. He added that defendants not on the list can request to have their cases reviewed as well.
According to Walsh, it is now up to a judge to review the motion and make orders to dismiss in each individual case.
“I expect these will all be granted,” he said, adding it could take several months.
“So, say someone has a felony conviction from 1989 for marijuana for sale,” Walsh said. “When the court goes ahead and grants the motion, that person will no longer have a felony conviction on their record — they can honestly report that they no longer have a felony conviction. The case will literally go away.”
Curtis Brenner, convicted in 1990 for cultivating marijuana and possession for sale, said he had considered petitioning the court to have his record expunged.
Brenner noted he had not had any issues since then, running a successful business locally for decades and buying his own house, adding, “I have no other record except for that.”
But Brenner, who is moving out of the country, said it might make some visa requirements a little easier to negotiate.
“I think it was a crock, what I had to go through,” he said.
In Brenner’s view, marijuana was criminalized unnecessarily, when hemp can be used to manufacture any number of useful products.
“Think about what our world would be like if it had never been illegal,” he said.
For Brian Scott, owner of T-5 Boxing, his 2012 conviction set him on a better path.
“I am thankful I did get caught,” he said, citing his renewed belief in God. “This allowed me to change my life. … I hit my knees and I had no other choice but to look up. That’s what really changed me. It changed me into the man I am today, a positive role model giving back to the community.”
Scott said he did not allow his conviction to keep him from achieving his goals, but acknowledged it held him back in the past from exploring options like joining the probation department.
“I know it will feel good, to have it off (my record),” he said. “It will be a sense of relief as far as cleaning up some of the wreckage from my past. .. I do feel like it will be a definite positive.”
That’s the whole point of the dismissals, Walsh said: to retroactively give people the benefit of the change in the law.
“For some people, this has held them back,” he said. “This takes the whole thing away like it never happened. This is a good thing for people who deserve that relief.”
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.