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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. 

Comments ( 2 )

  • Alison Bermant, Esq. says:

    Thank you for your thoughts and analysis. Clearly this new law has its positives and negatives as almost all defendant beneficial changes in the law do. Onward we fight my friend.

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