Nevada bill would vacate sentences for some marijuana-related convictions

Post Date: March 17, 2017

Originally seen in TVN

A Nevada bill would do away with the sentences of defendants who were convicted of possessing an ounce or less of recreational marijuana before it became legal on Jan. 1 this year.

Assemblyman William McCurdy II introduced Assembly Bill 259 this week to the Assembly’s Committee on Corrections, Parole and Probation in an effort to allow judges to depart from previously prescribed minimum sentences as related to simple marijuana possession charges.

“Mandatory minimum sentencing is more damaging than it is helpful. Nevada voted in November, and our laws must reflect those results,” said McCurdy, speaking about the passage of Question 2.

In November, 54 percent of Nevadan voters voted “yes” on legalizing the possession of up to one ounce of recreational marijuana and up to one-eighth of an ounce of marijuana concentrate. Although marijuana still is illegal under federal law, prosecutors have publicly stated that they will respect state mandates.

There is no clear number of how many people this bill could affect, said John Piro, representing the Clark County Public Defender’s Office. He said the number of people would be “a lot” because it could clear the convictions not only of those who are currently incarcerated but those who have records because of former arrests and convictions.

“This bill really hits home for me,” said Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, D-North Las Vegas. “My cousin was charged years ago with possessing less than an ounce and served 17 years. It was a non-violent crime. He’s doing great now, but I’m very curious how many cases we potentially have that would be vacated.”

If you go back two decades, possessing less than an ounce of marijuana could mean more than a decade of imprisonment.

“We had some of the most strict laws when it came to marijuana,” said Will Adler, executive director of the Nevada Medical Marijuana Association.

Assembly Ira Hansen, R- Sparks, was not sure the bill was necessary since most people caught with small amounts of marijuana faced only misdemeanor charges in recent years and no longer faced lengthy imprisonment sentences.

McCurdy’s bill targets low-level non-violent offenders, he said, and would not apply to offenders who pleaded more serious charges down to lesser ones. The bill is not inclusive of charges in which the person threatened harm or was in possession of or used a weapon.

“We saw that in another bill where we had defendants plea down to something like trespassing from sex trafficking,” said Assemblyman Elliott Anderson, D-Las Vegas. “I’d hate for this bill to be under-inclusive.”

Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen, D-Henderson, expressed similar concerns about defendants who had “entangled” charges, where they might be imprisoned for other, more serious reasons.

The Nevada District Attorneys Association opposed the bill because the bill would vacate the sentence but not seal the records, which would largely defeat the intent of the bill, according to the association’s lobbyist John Jones.

“The entire case would be invisible to employers, law enforcement and the courts,” said Jones of a suggested amendment to seal records after vacating a sentence.

As an employer, Hansen said he would want to know an employee’s history arrest history, regardless if the violation now is legal.

If you or someone you know has been affected by a conviction that resulted from possessing an ounce or less of marijuana, please contact reporter Jenny Kane at jkane@rgj.com.