When Arizona voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2020, they also gave people with a history of certain marijuana-related offenses the chance to have their state criminal records sealed through a process known as “expungement.”
However, when it comes to people caught possessing, using or transporting marijuana, the law created by Prop. 207 applies only to cases involving 2.5 ounces or less of weed. It doesn't pertain to people like Rene Pompa, who was convicted of a felony offense and sent to prison in 2015 after he was caught in Rio Rico while driving a pickup loaded with nearly 50 pounds of pot.
"I'm not sure that this is one of these offenses that qualifies for expungement," Superior Court Judge Thomas Fink told Pompa during a hearing Monday on Pompa's request to expunge his 2015 case.
Pompa's stated reason for wanting his conviction erased was understandable.
"It's very difficult to get employment when you have a drug conviction," Pompa, now 40, told the judge.
He added that he's preparing to start paralegal studies through correspondence classes in hopes of eventually gaining employment in the legal field.
"It would be a lot easier for me to get employment doing that if I didn't have this conviction," he said.
But while Pompa wasn't eligible for expungement, the judge noted that Arizona law offers an alternative process known as a "set aside." And he said the County Attorney's Office had not objected to setting aside the conviction in Pompa's case.
"A set-aside is something that can be done with respect to any felony conviction," Fink said. "And that does help people do what you're trying to do – which I absolutely approve of. You're trying to better yourself, create a future for yourself, get some accreditation..."
Anyone who has been convicted of a state criminal offense in Arizona and completed all the terms of their punishment can ask a judge to set aside the judgement in their case. If granted, the case record remains in the public sphere and can still be used as a prior conviction if the person gets into criminal trouble again. However, the case record will include a notation that the conviction has been set aside.
Fink ended Monday's hearing by ordering that Pompa's 2015 conviction be set aside.
"Thank you very, very much, Your Honor. God bless you," Pompa said.
But that wasn't the end of Pompa's legal troubles, and it's not clear how much the set aside will benefit him considering his other past and ongoing problems, which include an ongoing drug-trafficking case and multiple past deportations.
Pompa appeared at Monday's hearing telephonically, dialing in from the Anchorage Correctional Complex in Alaska, where he is currently incarcerated.
In April 2021, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Alaska announced that a federal grand jury had indicted Pompa and nine other people for their alleged roles in a drug-trafficking organization. Two of the defendants, including Pompa, were identified as Mexican citizens.
Pompa, along with a co-defendant who shares his last name, were the alleged "ring leaders" of an organization purportedly operating in Anchorage and Arizona, as well as eight other U.S. states.
"Beginning in March 2018 through October 2020, they regularly mailed large amounts of drugs to distributors throughout the country. They also deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars of drug proceeds into various bank accounts," the prosecutor's office said in a news release, adding that during the investigation, law enforcement officers recovered approximately six kilograms of heroin, four kilograms of methamphetamine and four kilograms of fentanyl.
Records from U.S. District Court in Arizona show that Pompa was arrested by U.S. Marshals in Tucson on April 7, 2021. A week later, a federal magistrate ordered that he be transported to Alaska to face charges there.
During Monday's hearing at Santa Cruz County Superior Court, the deputy county attorney who responded to Pompa's petition acknowledged that he had not objected to the idea of setting aside Pompa's 2015 state conviction. But he added that five days after he filed his response, the Santa Cruz County Probation Department formally objected to the request.
The objection, the prosecutor said, was "based on a couple things that I was not aware of at that time. One of the circumstances was that Mr. Pompa apparently has picked up a federal charge after this was ended."
Court records showed that Pompa's local conviction stemmed from an incident on Sept. 23, 2013, when agents with the HIDTA Task Force were conducting surveillance on a residence in Rio Rico that was suspected of being a stash house for a large quantity of marijuana. At around 4:55 p.m. that day, the agents saw a man leave the home in a pickup truck and they called the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office to request a traffic stop.
A sheriff’s deputy stopped the truck at Kilometer 22 on Interstate 19 and the driver produced a license identifying him as Mario Rodriguez Abelo. According to federal court records, Pompa had fraudulently obtained an Arizona driver’s license in that name on Aug. 19, 2013.
When the deputy spotted two bundles of marijuana in the truck, Pompa tried to flee, but was caught and arrested. The two bundles were later determined to contain just under 50 pounds of pot, combined.
Two more men seen leaving the house in Rio Rico shortly after Pompa were later arrested in Nogales.
Later, after obtaining a search warrant, the HIDTA agents allegedly entered the home on Ruby Road and found more than 30 bundles of marijuana.
Federal and state court records say that Pompa, who was born in Nogales, Sonora, was brought illegally to Nogales, Ariz. as a child. He graduated from Rio Rico High School in 2000, according to the files.
During a pre-sentence interview in October 2015, Pompa reportedly told a probation officer that he had agreed to drive the pot bundles to Tucson in expectation of being paid $1,000. He said he needed the money to get caught up on his child support and rent payments.
Pompa later pleaded guilty to a Class 4 felony drug-smuggling offense. He was sentenced Oct. 16, 2015 by Judge Anna Montoya-Paez of Santa Cruz County Superior Court to one year of prison, with credit for 150 days already served in custody.
The judge also allowed Pompa to serve the sentence concurrent to a federal term that stemmed from the same arrest in September 2013.
As a result of that arrest, authorities determined that he had illegally re-entered the United States after having been deported through San Ysidro, Calif. in August 2010 following a drug-trafficking conviction. In August 2015, a federal judge in Tucson sentenced him to 33 months in federal prison for illegal re-entry.