The Washington State House Public Safety Committee (WA House PS) considers issues relating to law enforcement agencies, crime prevention, criminal penalties and sentencing, impaired driving, registration and civil commitment of sex offenders, and adult correctional programs and institutions.
The House Public Safety Committee hosted a public hearing for SB 5605, “Concerning misdemeanor marijuana offense convictions.”
- See details on SB 5605's Senate policy committee public hearing and executive session, and the Senate fiscal committee public hearing and executive session. SB 5605 was passed by the full Senate on March 11th without amendments.
- Committee Counsel Kelly Leonard briefed members (audio – 3m, video); from the House Bill Analysis:
- Requires a court to vacate a misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction upon the application of a person who was age 21 or older at the time of the offense.
- Committee Chair Roger Goodman asked staff if the bill impacted municipal code cannabis misdemeanors. Leonard replied the bill cited state statute and “does not speak to municipal ordinances, either equivalent municipal ordinances or those that adopt the [Revised Code of Washington (RCW)] by reference.” Goodman stated that further changes might be necessary as “probably the vast majority of marijuana misdemeanor convictions were in municipal areas” (audio – 3m, video)
- Ranking Member Brad Klippert asked how the bill stacked up to HB 1500, which the committee heard and passed in February. Leonard stated the companion bills had been initially identical and, while SB 5605 remained unchanged, the committee adopted a proposed substitute for HB 1500 which was then amended. HB 1500 was not subsequently taken up by the House Appropriations Committee.
- Noting that the statute referenced in the bill dated to 1998, Goodman said “there were quite a number of convictions before 1998” that would have to be “added in.” SB 5605’s sponsor, Senator Joe Nguyen, immediately declared “I’m in, that sounds fantastic.”
- Goodman said he didn’t plan to amend this bill to require local prosecutors to file on behalf of people vacating misdemeanors because prosecutors represented the state “and it would be kind of awkward for them to be filing on behalf of former defendants.”
- Senator Nguyen then spoke to his bill saying it was “righting the wrong of an injustice in the past of a law that disproportionately impacted communities of color.” He felt compelled to act because “the war on drugs was a failed effort that largely impacted communities that I care about a great deal.” Nguyen said this led to “complications” in peoples’ lives for behavior now legal, “everything from finding housing, finding jobs, even going to school and supporting their kids in a field trip” (audio – 1m, video).
- Goodman inquired if vacation of misdemeanor possession convictions for people with additional criminal history was acceptable to Nguyen. The senator replied, “That sounds great to me because I think oftentimes it’s a cycle. Once you get caught up in our judicial system you are put in this vicious cycle where your hardships oftentimes define your outcomes.” He believed the bill could impact recidivism for those having served a sentence (audio – 6m, video).
- Representative John Lovick asked how many cases would be impacted by the bill. Nguyen responded there were “about 68,000 misdemeanor convictions which impacts about 40,000 people.”
- Klippert, citing his experience as a Superior Court Deputy in Pierce County, questioned if the bill’s language “Permitting the applicant to withdraw the applicant’s plea of guilty and to enter a plea of not guilty” would create situations where defendants would perjure themselves before the court. Staff replied that “there is a distinction between testimony in court and a plea that’s entered in a particular case. My understanding is that perjury does not apply to your plea, it only applies to the testimony that you provide.”
- Representative Robert Sutherland asked about statistics supporting Nguyen’s claim of racial disparity in arrests. Nguyen said that while cannabis use has been roughly equivalent between racial groups, for arrests “about 1.7 to two times as much” were from communities of color. Sutherland asked Nguyen to get an “exact number” for racial disparities in arrests among the 40,000 people affected by the bill.
- Lara Kaminsky, Executive Director of the Cannabis Alliance, reported that vacation of misdemeanors was voted the organization’s top legislative priority by the group’s members. She said she was “very happy” to be supporting the measure and hoped that it moved forward (audio – 1m, video).
- Logan Bowers, owner of retailer Hashtag Cannabis, urged passage of the legislation. He claimed “the voters spoke in 2012” and the legal industry in the state had shown that public safety concerns around the plant were “unfounded” making the misdemeanors in question similarly unjustifiable (audio – 1m, video).
- William Gipson, a concerned citizen, offered a personal view of the issue. He explained he was “one of the 40,000” impacted by the bill. Gipson said he’d “tried to move forward in my life” but experienced “difficulties” even after serving a sentence handed down when he was a juvenile. He said he’d been “coerced into pleading guilty” as a teenager when a prosecutor and lawyer told him such a plea was the best way to get a conviction “behind him.” Instead, the charge followed Gipson, keeping him from employment and business loans. He described it as something that “hunts you the rest of your life” (audio – 2m, video).
- Representative Jenny Graham asked Gipson if he was guilty of the cannabis offense. “Circumstances,” he said and indicated his social circle at the time did “not [want] to run from the police.” Graham persisted in her request for an admission of guilt and Gipson complied. Graham said, “I’m somebody that supports trying to help…people, but I think that’s part of it, coming to the realization – were you guilty or were you not guilty at that point? And then I think, moving on from there, thanks” (audio – 2m, video).
- Goodman said the committee would address the bill during executive session “next week.”