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SANTA FE – The chief justice of New Mexico’s Supreme Court told lawmakers Thursday the state’s judicial branch will seek changes during the upcoming 60-day legislative session to a 2021 law that mandates small-level cannabis convictions be expunged from criminal records.
Specifically, Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon said the law, which was enacted when lawmakers legalized recreational cannabis sales, has placed a heavy burden on judicial staffers who have had to sift through voluminous criminal records to determine which convictions qualify to be purged.
Instead of putting the onus on the judicial branch to identify and expunge cannabis-related convictions, it should be up to affected individuals to file applications for such action, Bacon said.
A similar process is already in place for those seeking to purge their record of arrests for other types of criminal offenses in cases that did not result in convictions.
“We think there’s a more straightforward and simplistic way to handle this that will take what has been an incredibly onerous process off the judiciary and put the control in the hands of the person that’s had the conviction,” Bacon said during a meeting of the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.
Supporters of the marijuana expungement bill insisted during last year’s debate it would help New Mexicans who have faced challenges finding housing and jobs due to past cannabis possession offenses on their record.
But critics argued the legislation was flawed and said removal of public records would leave businesses with less information to make hiring decisions.
In practice, Bacon said the mandate to review criminal records for expungement eligibility has proven cumbersome since most individuals with cannabis-related convictions were also convicted of other crimes.
She also said many prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, especially in southeast New Mexico, have used an objection provision included in the law to try to block cannabis convictions from being expunged from some individuals’ records.
“Judges are spending untold hours addressing objections to this process, whether there’s a cannabis charge or not,” Bacon said.
Barry Massey, the spokesman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said there is no data available yet as to exactly how many New Mexico residents have had their past cannabis-related convictions expunged since the law took effect. He also said there was no data as to the number of objections filed by prosecutors in advance of a July 1 deadline.
Under the expungement law, criminal convictions for trafficking or possession of large amounts of marijuana – more than 2 ounces – are not eligible to be expunged since purchase and public possession of such an amount of cannabis remains illegal under the state’s cannabis legalization law.