November 2016


Prop 64’s Effect on Criminal Records: Legal Invalidity vs. Redesignating Prior Felonies

**This is a technical analysis that is not necessarily fun reading, but may be helpful for attorneys or people who want to clean up their prior cannabis felonies .

Prop 64 fundamentally redefines California’s criminal cannabis laws, in particular Health & Safety Code [“H.S.”] §§ 11358 (cultivation), 11359 (possession for sale), and 11360 (transportation/sales).  Each of those crimes are now misdemeanors, unless its someone’s third offense for that particular crime.[1]  AUMA also allows people to redefine their criminal histories to reflect Prop 64’s changes to the standard marijuana felonies.  There are two avenues for updating one’s criminal record, one of which applies to people who are still serving their sentences (H.S. § 11361.8(a)-(d).)  The other avenue, for folks who have served their time and are off probation or parole, is the focus of this article.

Legal Invalidity vs. Redesignation (H.S. Section 11361.8(e)-(h).)

Under Prop 64, people with cannabis felonies on their record can now “apply” either (1) to have their prior conviction dismissed and sealed because the prior conviction is now “legally invalid,” or (2) to have their prior convictions reduced to misdemeanors.  Judge Couzin’s bench brief on Resentencing Procedures (PDF attached below) is helpful on this procedure, but there are a few substantive notes I want to add: 

1.  ”Redesignating” The Prior As A Misdemeanor

This avenue is available to everyone with a conviction for H.S. §§ 1135811359, and 11360, as well as anyone with a prior “hash” felony, H.S. § 11357(a).  It is critical people realize Prop 64 actually “redesignates” these felonies to be misdemeanors “for all purposes.”  (H.S. § 11361.8(h))  This includes future priorability!   Thus, someone with two prior felonies who gets them “redesignated” will now have two AUMA priors, which then allows any future criminal offenses to be charged as felonies! (See an example in footnote [2], below.) 

Thus, folks who are no longer working in the cannabis industry or who want licensing to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. may want to get their records redesignated.  Those who are still in the cannabis game, however, may want to leave well enough alone, since a prior cultivation felony is not priorable under H.S. § 11358(d)(1).  Arguably, it is legally invalid as-is, so why mess with a good thing?

2.   Declaring The Prior to Be Legally Invalid

AUMA says a person who has a criminal record for conduct that “would not have been guilty of an offense or who would have been guilty of a lesser offense” can now seek to have the sentence declared invalid or get it reduced to a misdemeanor.  This language is unclear, but I imagine most judges will read this to say that if one’s conduct would have been perfectly legal under AUMA, then they can get the conviction dismissed and sealed as “legally invalid.”  (Judge Couzins agrees.)  That means the conduct would not have been a crime under AUMA (which only allows 6 plants, 1 ounce of flower, and/or 8 ounces of concentrates), so the dismissal/sealing on grounds of “legal invalidity” will be far more difficult to obtain.
 
There is no question that those who have felony convictions for cultivating 6 or less plants (11358) are eligible to have their priors declared legally invalid, as are those who have possession for sale (11359) and transportation (11360) for possessing or transporting their personal stash (so long it’s a single ounce of flower and/or 8 ounces of concentrates).  

Everything else, however, is legally murky, as H.S. §§ 11359 and 11360 are not determined by quantity, and instead are focused on whether the conduct was being possessed, transported, or sold consistently with AUMA or MCRSA’s regulatory regimes, which presents somewhat of a quandary because these schemes are not yet in effect.  Presumably, however, if one’s conduct was within S.B. 420’s collective/cooperative defense as we know it today, that might also be sufficient for a declaration of legal invalidity, but that’s no slam dunk and may require an evidentiary hearing, depending on your DA. [3] 

One interesting issue will arise where the arresting or investigating officer(s), and/or their police reports, are no longer accessible due to the passage of time.  Since the prior conduct is presumed to be legal, and the burden is explicitly placed on the prosecution to prove otherwise, older convictions may more easily be declared legally invalid due to the prosecution’s simple inability to locate the old evidence.  This will be a huge asset to those cannabis foremothers and forefathers with felony convictions dating back to the 1980’s or earlier.
 
In any event, the prosecutor can always elect not to contest an application for legal invalidity and, thus, discussing these issues with opposing counsel in advance might save our clients from putting them through another emotional, costly, and often difficult evidentiary hearing on an old conviction. 
 
                                                                                 ***
In closing, our clients are undoubtedly in a better position under Prop 64, since cannabis crimes now default to misdemeanors instead of felonies, and even those misdemeanors are allowable only where one cannot obtain a permit under MCRSA or AUMA.  This fundamental shift in the law provides defense attorneys new arrows in their quiver, with which to continue to strike down cannabis prohibition and keep people out of cages for a plant.  
 
<3, hb

Footnotes:
​ 
[1] As the priors are statute-specific, a prior 11358 conviction should not be “priorable” in a future § 11359 case.  

Additionally, cultivation (11358) remains a felony where committed with an environmental crime, and transportation (11360) remains a felony where the cannabis is being transported out of state.  Sections 1135811359, and 11360 may also be charged as felonies where the defendant has a prior conviction for murder, child molestation, or other serious or violent crime.  This last rule seems like an odd thing for AUMA to throw into the mix, but I am not going to address it here in detail since most of us will rarely see that become an issue in the standard cannabis cases.

[2]           Take cultivation (11358) as an example:

If a person has two cultivation priors, they could seek to have them “redesignated” as misdemeanors, so their criminal history would show two prior violation of the new subsection (c) in H.S. § 11358.  That is great, in that their criminal history is now comprised of two misdemeanors instead of two felonies, a definite improvement.  Where this gets wonky, however, is that those two misdemeanors are also now “priorable” under H.S. § 11358(d)(1), since this section allows a felony charge where there are two priors of § 11358’s new subsection (c).

The same is true for possession in § 11359(c)(2), and also for transportation/sales in § 11360(a)(3)(B)

[3]   If that person already went to trial and used a collective/cooperative defense, it’s doubtful AUMA’s procedure will be interpreted to allow a mini-bench trial on the exact same issue in order to get a declaration of legal invalidity, but I suppose that remains to be seen. 

[4]    Note that H.S. § 11361.8 does not extend to priors for H.S. §§ 11366 or 11366.5, which was a common plea bargain for many cannabis crimes because they were wobblers and did not require registration as a narcotics offender.  These folks may still access the regular route for expungement and reduction under P.C. §§ 1203.4/17(b), and discretionary relief may be made more available due to Prop 64’s passage. 

Why I’m Voting Yes on 64: A Tortured Analysis

Admittedly, Prop 64 does nothing to alter the corrupted capitalist economic system in our nation.  That means that if-and-when cannabis enters the commercial market, it enters a capitalist commercial market where traditional market forces will be in play, for better or worse.  And I’m still voting yes. Here’s why:

I am a criminal defense attorney. My task each day is to defend those who are charged with cannabis felonies throughout the California. Prop 64’s primary redeeming quality is it will have a sweeping effect on current California’s cannabis prohibition, where cultivating cannabis is currently presumed to be a felony unless one can prove their conduct was medical and not for profit.  Today’s cannabis law and today’s cannabis industry simply do not match, which works to the advantage of law enforcement who often seize upon this confusion out in the cannabis fields to arrest famers first, and ask questions later.  

Importantly, illegal cultivation is a straight felony under SB 420 or MCRSA, as misdemeanor cultivation does not even exist in California law today. This should be a heightened concern to growers in ban counties, such as most of the Sierra foothills.  However, if 64 passes, any illegal conduct becomes a misdemeanor unless its (1) a person’s 3rd offense, (2) if the cultivation is conducted in conjunction with an environmental crime, or (3) if transporting out of state.  Even with the influx of cash to law enforcement from Prop 64, law enforcement does not have the same resources or authority to investigate misdemeanants as it does felons. Perhaps equally important, Prop 64 explicitly negates the smell of cannabis as the necessary probable cause that cops use to get into homes and cars. That’s a sweeping disadvantage to law enforcement and will have massive effects on how they can investigate our people. I cannot stress how important these changes could be for growers. 

Next, I am wary of those (often wealthy out-of-staters who moved to California in the recent years for the specific purpose of cultivating cannabis) who are advising those of us who were born here that the corporations are going to take over.  Those corporations are already here, my friends.  There are people at our own local policy meetings that would happily vertically integrate if they could and push the diversity of our small farms out of the market in favor of market domination. If we think the big guys have the small farmers’ backs today, we’re kidding ourselves. It is already happening.  The competitive application processes thus far around the state have been a bloodbath, as is often the case in a corrupted capitalist system such as ours. Steve DeAngelo of Harborside spoke in Nevada County recently and said the future of the small farmer is to lease space from the large cultivators!  And he wasn’t talking about Prop 64, folks. 

To some degree, the preservation and promotion of self is human nature, regardless of the economic system in play.  In fact, the most common question at my office is “how can I establish priority for future licensing?,” raising the inference that if there is a cap on number of permits, most folks want to be one of those few, to the exclusion of others.  Lets also take a moment to recall Prop 64’s allowance of priority and vertical integration sent hundreds—perhaps thousands—of NorCal growers to ill-advisedly rush to file for cooperatives prior to September 1 this summer. The same insane bumrush happened last December regarding the MCRSA priority. Trust me, someone out there is already gunning to throw other small farmers under the bus, Prop 64 or not.  Prop 64 just takes that felony bus and makes it a misdemeanor. 

In California, we should instead look closer at competitive capitalism, the effect of money in politics, and a grossly unjust legal system, rather than reject a second semi-legalization initiative.  Instead of infighting, I wish our community would focus on addressing the corruption in these underlying power systems, making sure that more small businesses, people of color, women and those with cannabis-related criminal histories, are supported in this new era.

Finally, a particularly violent anti-64 grower I know (in another County) has thrived in the black and grey market because his cannabis is subpar by all accounts, and has been so for years.  Market forces should drive out the growers who lie about their pesticide use or inflate the cannabinoid content.  The market will make sure the money he made in the past would now go to someone who does play by the rules, who is willing to have their cannabis tested by a laboratory, who pays taxes, and who makes sure their product is labeled truthfully; someone who makes sure to follow the appropriate regulatory process.  Small growers will be able to get their permits and can even thrive, if they are willing to do the hard work of increasing the quality of their brand, marketing their product well, banding with others, coming to the policy meetings to shape the regulations in their favor, and who will do the work required of legitimate business.

I admit this is a tortured doom-and-gloom analysis, and it saddens me that I just don’t see another option. Prop 19 was far better than Prop 64, so I doubt the next one is going to be better.  Who would fund another and more expensive legalization initiative after two failed in California? My heart is heavy about this, as the harsh realities of Prop 64 has exposed some of the darker sides of California cannabis, on both sides of the issue.  I can only pray we respect each other’s opinion and each others Constitutional and ethical imperitive to VOTE, and look forward to that day when we reunite in a meaningful way to focus on the greater problems we continue to battle: money in politics and a broken legal system.

Those evils will persist, regardless of the outcome of this election. Please do not let this divide our community any further.  Either way, we have so much work to do. 

#rise #dividedwefall #fuckthatCOINTELPROshit #protectourfarmers #sameteam 

My musical meditation for this sad soulful post is Murs, “The Time is Now.” 

Look, not now, but right now, it’s time to change the game,
A new style, something different, you know, uplifting,
New sound from the West that we all can get with it,
The Pacific to be specific.”  

#cali4life <3, ~hb