New Jersy is dismissing weed cases. Here’s what that means

New Jersy is dismissing weed cases. Here’s what that means. New Jersey has begun vacating and dismissing marijuana cases, part of the process to implement the new weed decriminalization law.

The change is intended to help people with pending cases or old marijuana charges on their records to get a clean slate. Arrests and fines for possessing up to six ounces of marijuana and selling up to one ounce ended when Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law in February. But there’s also movement to erase old records now that possession is legal.

Here’s what you need to know about the change.

Q: Why do people need expungements?

A: People with criminal records can struggle to get jobs, housing and student loans due to years-old charges. Even after their cases are vacated or dismissed, then can remain on records pending expungements. Expungement is the process that seals a criminal record from public view.

Expungements are historically hard to get in New Jersey. A law signed in 2019 sought to fix that by moving the filing system online, eliminating fees and expanding the number of eligible crimes. This law will eventually establish an automatic system for expunging records.

Q: What marijuana offenses are eligible?

A: The charges made eligible by the new law include selling less than one ounce of marijuana and possession, as well as related crimes like possession of drug paraphernalia, being under the influence, failing to turn over marijuana or being or possessing marijuana while in vehicle.

The order applies not just to old records, but also to pending cases, those awaiting sentencing and those currently serving sentences, either in prison, probation or parole.

Q: How many cases are there?

A: The state estimates some 360,000 cases are eligible. But as many as 1 million may have been arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey since the early 1990s.

The state Judiciary has dealt with 88,000 cases so far, it announced Monday evening.

Q: How does it work?

A: The process is happening automatically in waves, according to the judiciary. After cases are vacated or dismissed, they will be slated for expungement. This is expected to take a few months.

Q: How do I know if my crime has been expunged?

A: The judiciary said it is creating an electronic system that will allow people with records to obtain certificates showing their crimes have been expunged.

New Jerseyans with pending marijuana charges breathed a sigh of relief last month when Gov. Phil Murphy finally signed laws to legalize and decriminalize weed in the Garden State.

But putting pen to paper did not spur an immediate drop in charges, attorneys say.

There are court scheduling issues. Nuances in the laws have left those with similar minor marijuana charges facing different outcomes as some are receiving dismissals in days, while others wait for their day in court.

And it could even depend on whether a person had a joint, a brownie or a vape when a cop stopped them.

The chaotic situation isn’t surprising to defense attorneys who have watched marijuana arrests continue for months, even though a majority of New Jersey voters said yes to legal weed in November.

“I kind of expected that this was going happen, that there was going to be some growing pains,” said Jef Henninger, a Tinton Falls-based criminal defense attorney. “I’m not shocked whatsoever.”

The decriminalization law, which removes penalties for possessing up to six ounces of marijuana, took effect immediately on Feb. 22, and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told prosecutors to seek dismissals of pending charges.

The attorney general’s order covered a handful of charges, including possession of marijuana and hashish, selling less than one ounce, having paraphernalia, possessing marijuana in a vehicle, being under its influence or failing to dispose of it.

But there are other related charges that do not make the cut. Police sometimes charge marijuana edibles and vape pens as a more serious Schedule 1 drug under the law, and not as marijuana.

“To me, it’s a disconnect,” said Joseph Rotella, a Newark defense attorney who has one client in this position in Union County. “You can have a marijuana charge that’s going to be dismissed. But if you have edibles or vapes with THC, the attorney general’s guidelines and the changes are silent as to whether or not they should be dismissed.”

A spokesman for the Union County Prosecutor’s Office deferred comment to the attorney general. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the law covers which cases prosecutors cannot pursue, and others need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

The intention of decriminalization was clear: end arrests that disproportionately affect minorities. Rotella said prosecutors may need some updated guidance from the attorney general on how to handle these cases.

Henninger said he has a client facing marijuana possession and wandering to purchase drugs. The wandering charge (prowling or loitering for the purpose of buying or selling a controlled dangerous substance) would not qualify for dismissal under the attorney general’s guidance, but the possession charge will.

Attorneys also said courts have handled dismissals differently. Some have issued them swiftly, but others set dates and require a defendant to appear in person to resolve the case.

Brian Mason, vice president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association, said prosecutors can request dismissals, but they cannot control court schedules. And judges have discretion in determining whether they are handled in or out of court.

“It’s clearly a matter of the courts having to schedule these things and sort through cases that merely have marijuana and absolutely nothing else,” he said. “You can’t turn around today and say, schedule every case that involves X tomorrow.”

Some municipal courts meet as infrequently as once or twice a month. Getting backed up marijuana cases before judges could take time. And many may need to go before judges because they include other drug or motor vehicle charges, Mason said.

That means more delays, and more time off from work defendants will have to take if they are scheduled for court. Attorneys interviewed for this story said most of the cases stem from arrests that took place after New Jerseyans voted to legalize marijuana in November.

Grewal ordered prosecutors to request adjournments for cases for minor marijuana possession and related charges in November, but did not call on police to cease arrests. Between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31, police issued more than 6,000 charges for marijuana possession, according to the state judiciary.

Others from prior months remain in the pile, stacked up and halted after the attorney general adjourned marijuana cases through March 31.

Carmine Villani, a defense attorney with Villani & DeLuca in Point Pleasant Beach, said he has seen some dismissals go through already. One court required an appearance, but another issued the dismissal without one.

“It seems like there’s just a little bit of hesitancy because it’s so brand new and it’s so foreign to have things that have been prosecuted for the last 50 years dismissed,” he said.

Villani has some 15 to 20 marijuana cases that remain open. With scheduling these in court, he estimated it may take until June to resolve all of the cases.

Scott A. Gorman, a defense attorney with Millburn-based Maitlin Maitlin Goodgold Brass & Bennett, said one court sent an email noting a client’s charge was cleared, and in another case, a prosecutor called to work out the details of an attached motor vehicle charge not covered by the order.

But others have court dates scheduled. Gorman said he does not expect pushback in getting the charges dismissed. But they will linger on records until that happens, potentially affecting those applying for new jobs.

“It’s great that the story will end with a dismissal and expungement and it’s like it never happened,” he said. ”But it’s also like that job offer never happened.” News Source

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