Last fall, Jesse Lomeli left Tucson and drove an hour south to his hometown of Nogales. The goal, he said, was to help residents who had marijuana-related criminal charges.
In 2020, Arizona voters approved Proposition 207, a ballot measure that legalized small quantities of recreational marijuana. The following year, another statute from Prop. 207 went into effect, allowing certain individuals with cannabis-related charges to get their records expunged.
In response, Arizona NORML, a non-profit advocacy group, set up an expungement clinic outside a smoke shop on Grand Avenue. They waited. The turnout, Lomeli recalled, was underwhelming.
“I mean, people passed by, but nothing,” he said. “We didn’t get no bites.”
Lomeli himself is not employed by NORML – he runs a cannabis cultivation business in Tucson. But, he said, he’d wanted to assist people whose criminal records could be hindering their ability to find work.
“They’re in limbo. They don’t know what to do,” Lomeli said. “Why wouldn’t you want to help these people?”
And turnout in the court system appears to have been equally low. Since the statute went into effect, eight people have petitioned for expungement in Santa Cruz County Superior Court.
Nogales Justice Court did not provide the number of petitions presented there.
What it means
When a criminal record is expunged, it becomes private. Post-expungement, only two parties can legally view the conviction or charge: the person who’d been accused, and their attorney.
In other words, the criminal charge or conviction is not visible during background checks for housing, employment and other resources.
“Getting records (expunged) … can help somebody, if they’re applying for housing, or applying for a scholarship for school, or applying for accreditation for a specific business license,” said Judge Liliana Ortega of Santa Cruz County Superior Court.
So far, Ortega has overseen the expungement petitions in Superior Court, which handles felony-level cases. As she pointed out, applicants are eligible for expungement if their arrest falls under certain parameters.
Expungement can only apply to individuals possessing marijuana for personal use. The individual had to be caught carrying no more than two-and-a-half ounces of cannabis. For those found in possession of marijuana plants, the individual must have possessed six or fewer plants to qualify for expungement.
Out of the eight expungement petitions that came across Ortega’s desk, she said, four were approved.
The remaining four were denied, Ortega said, because they did not meet the qualifications under state law.
“Those were convictions for drug-smuggling charges,” she said.
People charged or convicted of low-level, personal-use marijuana offenses would be more likely to have had their case processed at the justice court level, which handles misdemeanor offenses. Justice of the Peace Emilio Velasquez did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.
In 2011, a Border Patrol Agent found an abandoned Toyota Camry behind War Memorial Park in Nogales. Inside sat more than 230 pounds of marijuana. Eventually, officers traced the vehicle to a 19-year-old man, according to a pre-sentence report from Santa Cruz County Superior Court.
The man told officers he’d lent the car to three friends; they’d promised to pay him $1,000 if they could use the vehicle to transport the cannabis.
In a follow-up interview, the man also told officers his own father had recently been arrested, and he’d agreed to lend the car out to help his mother financially.
The man pleaded guilty to one count of solicitation to unlawful transportation of marijuana for sale – a Class 4 felony. He received a six-month sentence in jail, along with three years of supervised probation.
A case like that, for several reasons, would be ineligible for expungement under the Arizona law. Jonathan Udell, attorney and acting co-director of Arizona NORML, noted that local residents had stopped by the expungement clinic with similar cases.
Some people, he said, had expressed interest in getting their records expunged, but they didn’t qualify, due to the quantity of marijuana they’d been carrying at the time of their arrest.
“They had offenses that were just way too big to qualify,” Udell added.
And Lomeli, who’d grown up in Nogales, recognized that there could be a higher proportion of convictions for large-scale marijuana charges. He described a friend who’d been arrested years back for agreeing to transport several hundred pounds of the plants.
“It’s massive amounts,” Lomeli said. “We’re a border town. It’s (a) bigger scale here. It’s not (for) personal use,” he said.
The expungement experiment
When the statute went into effect last summer, Arizona NORML organized dozens of free expungement clinics – traveling with staff attorneys to Show Low, Bisbee and Mesa, among other communities. Sometimes, turnout was impressive: In Show Low, there was a line out the door, recalled Udell.
But in Nogales, he said, not so much.
“The traffic was pretty light,” Udell remembered.
Even organizing the clinic had been difficult. Seeking a location, Lomeli said, was a challenge.
“We went to several places. And several places denied me,” Lomeli recalled. “Because they were like, ‘We’re not, we don’t want to deal with that, with the marijuana.’”
Finally, they held the event in the parking lot of a smoke shop.
Another general barrier to expungement, Udell said, could be a lack of awareness about the new law. The website for the County Attorney’s Office, as well as the Superior Court, both lack general information about how to petition for an expungement.
Adding that information, Udell said, would be “a great start.”
Speaking to the NI, Lomeli expressed frustration over the pushback he’d received when trying to organize the workshop. The clinics, he said, hadn’t been promoting marijuana use – just expungements.
“That’s not what we’re trying to do,” Lomeli pointed out. “We’re actually trying to help people that were convicted.”
Expungements can also apply to people who were never convicted. For example, if a person is arrested and the case is ultimately dismissed, that arrest can still show up in background checks.
It’s not entirely clear how many people in Santa Cruz County would qualify for the new expungement opportunity – aside from the four individuals who got their petitions approved. No public database tracks arrests in the county relating specifically to small quantities of marijuana.
But Udell, who’d been arrested himself for marijuana possession in 2011 and 2012, noted that helping even one client get an expungement could have an impact.
Every so often, he said, he’d notice a client leaving an expungement clinic in tears, relieved to get rid of their criminal record.
“And now, they have this immense weight off of (their) shoulders,” he added.