The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered records related to a Dorchester man's arrest on marijuana-possession charges in 2003 and 2006 permanently deleted from court and criminal databases, under a state law that allows for "expungement" of such records for what are now legal activities.
In a ruling involving a Dorchester man, identified only as K.W., the state's highest court ruled that a 2018 criminal-reform act was written with "a strong presumption in favor of expungement" and requires exceptional reasons to not expunge records related to what is no longer a "low level" criminal act.
A Boston Municipal Court judge had denied K.W.'s request, saying "the best interests of justice" required they remain forever in the system, even if under seal. In overturning that ruling, the SJC noted prosecutors did not contest the man's assertion that he was caught with less than an ounce of marijuana each time and that he had gone on to become a productive member of society.
The court said that preserving the man's records would serve no criminal-justice purpose since "even if a petitioner were again to engage in the same conduct as that which created the record, the petitioner would not have committed a criminal act" and that "records created as a result of one of these factors have virtually no bearing on whether the petitioner might commit a criminal act in the future, and their value to society therefore is vanishingly small."
The judge who ruled on K.W.'s request did not detail what he meant by ""the best interests of justice;" in the future, the SJC ruled, judges who want to deny expungement will have to do so, in writing. The Suffolk County District Attorney's office supported K.W.'s request, made in 2019, to permanently delete records related to his marijuana arrests.
In the 2003 case, the man was charged only with possession of marijuana, but the case was dismissed when he contested the legality of the evidence and then the cop in the case didn't show up at a hearing, according to the court's summary of his cases. In 2006, he was charged with five other offenses, related to him being caught speeding with a suspended license.
The court allowed that the interests of justice in a case involving multiple charges might best be served by preserving the records of what remain criminal offenses, but said that could be done by deleting records related to the single no-longer criminal act, in this case, of marijuana possession rather than an entire file related to an arrest for multiple charges.
The court said that K.W. exemplified the sort of person the 2018 criminal-reform act was meant to help: Somebody who had made mistakes but had since striven to make amends - in his case by settling down and caring for his girlfriend's kids, getting a job and working to improve himself:
Representatives from an organization with which K.W. had completed a job training program and the community with which K.W. worshiped both submitted letters commending K.W. for his efforts at self-improvement, attesting to his character, and supporting his attempt to expunge the marijuana-related criminal records.
The court noted that as legislators were considering the 2018 reform act, they specifically referenced expungement - even as they allowed for some judicial oversight by requiring people to apply for expungement, rather than automatically expunging records of newly decriminalized acts:
Statements made by legislators around the time the act was adopted indicate that the Legislature conceived of its changes to the expungement scheme as transformational. One legislator described the act as evidence of a "shift in philosophy," reflecting an understanding that "sometimes something someone has done will plague them for the rest of their life," and that this "doesn't help us or them."