Major reforms to New Jersey’s expungement law (especially with respect to marijuana-related convictions) appear to be on the horizon – when and in what form remain in question.
Convictions on minor marijuana related offenses continue to follow thousands of individuals throughout the state, potentially making it difficult for them to obtain jobs, professional licenses and financial aid. Expungement offers a blank slate – wiping clean an individual’s record for low-level offenses. Unfortunately, New Jersey’s current system for expungement can be confusing, and it may take years before an offender becomes eligible to have her record expunged. This issue has particularly come to a head with respect to marijuana related convictions as the state moves closer to potential legalization. And while the latest effort at legalization failed in the spring, the state Senate and Assembly passed a bill (S-3205/A-4498) intending to make significant changes to New Jersey’s expungement law. The bill, which passed by large margins in June, would eliminate the waiting period to apply for expungement for individuals with certain marijuana offenses and expand eligibility for other drug related offenses. The bill also included broader expungement reforms, reducing the general waiting period to five years and eliminating filing fees.
At the end of August, however, Governor Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed the bill and issued recommendations for: (a) automatic expungements for those with clean records for at least ten years and (b) judicial sealing of low-level marijuana offenses. With respect to marijuana offenses, the Governor’s changes would have courts immediately seal an individual’s record upon the disposition of charges for possession or distribution of a small amount of marijuana or hashish or related drug paraphernalia. The Governor’s changes also seek to ensure that the sealed marijuana convictions cannot be used for sentencing purposes in other cases.
Following the veto, the state Senate was scheduled to vote last Thursday, September 12, 2019, on the changes Governor Murphy made to the bill. The vote, however, did not proceed as scheduled. Later that same day, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, along with Senators Sandra Cunningham and Teresa Ruiz, introduced new legislation incorporating certain of the Governor’s proposals.
With Election Day nearing, there are no Senate voting sessions scheduled until after November 5th. Despite the fact that both the Legislature and the Governor support changes to the expungement system, those with marijuana convictions will have to wait at least that long for reform.