Thursday, June 1, 2023

Expungement Sessions a Success

An Interview With Ellie Besancon


When adult-use cannabis was legalized in New Mexico, the law required the state to expunge the cannabis records of many. But technical issues have kept some of those records from being expunged automatically. To help people make certain their cannabis records have been expunged, organizers from Green Goods/Red Barn Growers recently hosted two free clinics. We spoke to Executive Director of Red Barn Growers/Green Goods New Mexico Ellie Besancon about the clinics.

The Paper.: Can you can you tell us about the expungement clinic. How did it go?

Besancon: October 1 was the second of two clinics. It was our first foray into putting these clinics together. The expungement clinic creation was in response to the cannabis legalization bill that passed. We recognized that New Mexicans needed a little bit of help understanding first of all, what expungement is, and second, if their case was automatically expunged. We found out pretty quickly that the court system was kind of a morass when it came charge expungement—so very tangled. So we thought this would be a really nice thing to do for folks from a social equity perspective—to offer an opportunity to see if people’s cases were expunged in the automatic expungement, and if they weren’t, show them how to fast track the cases and get them expunged.

We were looking for people who were arrested only in the Albuquerque area since 2000, because we knew their cases would be in SOPA, the court system. We wouldn’t have to go back and look for paperwork that wasn’t digitized yet. And we wanted to help people who had just a simple cannabis charge—being caught with possession of a couple of grams or similar cases.

We had our volunteers from the law school go out and put fliers up at bus stops and smoke shops and at other dispensaries. We posted on places like Reddit and social media spaces in addition to the traditional channels of email marketing and through our corporate channels. We really tried to get this out.

We had a handful of people come in and every single one of them had a complex case. But the coolest part for us was the sheer power of volunteers that we had. We had a couple of attorneys. We had a couple of judges. We had the Department of Public Safety there onsite. This team of volunteers was able to help every single one of the people who came in, which is so wonderful. I was working the check-in desk and the best part for me was to see people come in feeling a little timid or exhibiting shyness, and then seeing them walk out with these giant smiles on their faces. That to me was the reason why we did this. If we were even able to help one person I think it would have been a success. The fact that we were able to help a handful of people was really, really important.

Are you planning on doing any more clinics in the future?

Yes, absolutely. We were talking about maybe doing one right around the holidays. However, I think that the arduous task of untangling a lot of these possession of a controlled substance charges has been a big burden on the courts. And as far as I understand it, the New Mexican Supreme Court is going to make an appeal to the legislature to change the rules so that the individual is responsible for putting their expungement together versus just having an automatic expungement. So we want to wait until after the legislative session to see what transpires and if any changes happen to the bill. Obviously, an expungement session would be that much more important for people if the responsibility for expungement falls to them. So we’re waiting to hear what happens.

Ideally, we’d love to evolve this into a clinic that takes place all across the state. We’re still waiting to hear what goes on, but I envision something like a quarterly clinic that takes place in each of the main areas around the state.

So it sounds like not all of the expungements happened automatically.

Correct. It’s been more complicated, I think, than anybody anticipated right up front. The volume of cases is definitely one thing, but I think the charges themselves are also confusing to untangle. One example I heard is that a lot of the cannabis charges were identified initially as possession of a controlled substance. And sometimes those charges are a little difficult to sort out. What’s heroin or meth and what’s cannabis?

Additionally, a lot of the charges were coupled with more complicated charges. Like there was a gun involved or there were harder drugs involved or the volume of cannabis veered into federal levels.

Who qualifies for expungement?

Essentially, if you were arrested for something that you can buy today, that should be expunged.

Why is it important for people to get their records expunged?

Number one: If you’re going into a specific field where an employer is going to run a state background check, they’ll see the charge. Expungement opens up job opportunities for a lot of folks who might have been sheepish about applying for specific things. Number two: To get housing, there’s also a state background check.

For readers who missed the event, or those who live outside of Albuquerque—what can they do to check if their record was expunged?

Initially, what they can do is go to, and they can start there. They would enter their name and their date of birth, and theoretically, if they don't see a record come back for cannabis, it should be expunged.

But if they do see their name, then they can reach out to the Department of Public Safety to run a background check. Additionally, for those folks who have a court case, I recommend starting with someplace like New Mexico Legal Aid. They offer free legal advice, and they’re knowledgeable. They can point people in the right direction.


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