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Florida could erase some marijuana convictions if this bill passes. But there’s a catch.

“It’s the reality of passing legislation in the Legislature,” the bill’s Democratic sponsor said.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 9
Updated Apr. 9

TALLAHASSEE — At first, the bill would have allowed nearly 195,000 Floridians to have most misdemeanor marijuana convictions erased from their criminal records.

Then, the Senate sponsor amended the bill so it would have a better chance in the Florida House, which is led by Speaker Chris Sprowls.

“I would like to go further, but I think to get this in a position to possibly pass the House, I think this is the best we can do,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, Senate Bill 468′s sponsor.

The version of Bracy’s bill now working its way through the Legislature would allow only up to one marijuana misdemeanor conviction to be removed from a person’s record.

Related: Medical marijuana is booming in Florida, but the industry is nervous. Here’s why.

Bracy told the Times/Herald his modification was a political necessity.

“It’s the reality of passing legislation in the Legislature,” Bracy said. “You’ve got to compromise if you want to pass something of significance, especially if you’re in the minority party.”

Criminal justice advocates note that convictions can linger on a person’s record even years after a case is settled. Pew’s Stateline news service reported in 2017 that Americans with even minor criminal records can find it more difficult to access housing, employment and professional licenses.

Marijuana convictions are a particular sticking point for some advocates. It’s legal to possess at least small quantities of cannabis in 16 states. Why then, advocates ask, should possessing what many American governments consider a legal substance be a stain on a person’s record?

Also, federal statistics show that Black people are disproportionately likely to be prosecuted for low-level drug crimes. The left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2018, Black Americans were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana despite using the drug at a similar rate to whites.

But it’s unclear how even the compromise version of Bracy’s proposal will fare in the Florida House. Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former assistant state attorney in the Pinellas/Pasco judicial circuit, wrote the Times/Herald in a text message that he doesn’t favor expunging records based on the type of crime that was committed.

“You don’t expunge for a category of crimes (marijuana), you make policy choices based on where the person was in the criminal justice system (trial, conviction, first time offense, juvenile etc.),” Sprowls wrote. “I would not consider an expungement of a particular offense disconnected from other policy considerations.”

Sprowls noted that he has supported the sealing of certain arrests from someone’s public record. For example, as chair of the House Judiciary committee, he supported bills in 2017 and 2018 which allowed for a person who was not found guilty of a crime to have their record expunged.

As an assistant state attorney, Sprowls dealt often with marijuana cases. Court records show that Sprowls worked on at least 101 cases in which a defendant was charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession during his time in the state’s sixth judicial circuit.

Related: Controversial Florida medical marijuana bill one step closer to becoming law

Florida’s marijuana possession laws are notoriously strict. If a police officer finds someone with more than 20 grams of marijuana — less than one ounce — they can be charged with a felony. That’s one of the lowest thresholds in the country.

The amended version of Bracy’s SB 468 would give those arrested for possessing less than 20 grams of pot a chance to wipe the slate clean. But there would still be significant administrative hurdles. Floridians could only petition a court to have one misdemeanor marijuana conviction removed. And the offense could not have happened alongside another conviction. For example, a person convicted of marijuana possession and resisting arrest at the same time could not have the marijuana conviction erased from their record.

Under the bill, a person seeking to have a record expunged would have to have to wait at least one year after their case is closed before they can apply for its removal. Those still under court supervision couldn’t apply.

Erasing a pot misdemeanor conviction would follow the same process Floridians already use to get criminal records wiped clean. They’d have to pay the Florida Department of Law Enforcement a $75 fee to get a certificate of eligibility. Then the person seeking a clean record would have to bring that certificate to a court — which could still deny the expunging petition at their discretion.

“Is it a good step? Yes. Is it totally inadequate? Yes,” said Spence Purnell, a policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, of the bill. “We have to take a step back and reimagine how we look at criminal records and what they do to people.”

Purnell said Florida could easily enact a policy in which the state uses a computer program to automatically expunge marijuana convictions. California has a law which does this: last year, Los Angeles County’s district attorney moved to expunge about 66,000 such convictions.

Still, Bracy’s bill has moved further than any of its kind in recent memory — a fact the Orlando Democrat attributes to his ability to compromise with colleagues. The bill’s movement has got some criminal justice reform advocates excited.

“While cannabis possession was considered a serious offense 20 years ago, it’s a medical product that was considered an essential business today,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Bracy’s bill has cleared two committees in the Senate, each by overwhelming bipartisan margins. A House companion version, sponsored by Tray McCurdy, D-Orlando — Bracy’s former legislative aide — has yet to be heard in a committee.

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