Legal assistance to expunge pot convictions goes unused across Illinois

Connor’s criminal past started with police forcing open his door in the early morning hours five years ago, and it disappeared, give or take a few months, with a phone call to a state hotline last January.

The arrest, which netted less than half a kilogram of marijuana, still made headlines in the small town about 200 miles south of Chicago, and was followed by a guilty plea, 30 days in the Shelby County jail and two years of probation, and a lot of uncertainty about the future, thanks to a record that would mark Connor with a Class 4 felony for what he assumed would be the rest of his life.

When Illinois legalized cannabis in 2019, Connor learned that the legislation would also include provisions that allowed residents with minor cannabis-related arrests and convictions to clear their records. When those provisions took effect in 2020, he immediately headed to the courthouse — where, he was disappointed to learn, no one, neither local judges nor the state’s attorney’s office, were quite sure what he should do.

“It was so discouraging, all those trips to the courthouse. People said they didn’t think I qualified, but it seemed to me that I certainly did,” Connor said. 

Connor was not alone. As the unofficial weed enthusiasts’ holiday of April 20 — 4/20— arrives some three years into marijuana legalization in Illinois, only a fraction of residents entitled to have records of their cannabis arrests and charges expunged from public records have managed to do so. Connor might still be carrying the manufacturing and delivering cannabis counts on his record if not for a lucky call to a state hotline.

Connor had searched the internet for information and found only private lawyers who offered help— for a fee. Uncertain about the quality of those lawyers, or if he even needed one, Connor one day found the number for CARPLS, a legal aid clinic staffed with attorneys through New Leaf Illinois, a consortium of legal aid clinics that get a share of the state’s cannabis tax windfall to help defendants in Connor’s predicament.

“I was on the phone for literally 10 minutes, and they said, ‘You almost certainly qualify,’ and then they gave me the information for a private attorney,” said Connor, who didn’t want his full name published because his goal for the last five years has been to erase links to his cannabis charges from anywhere future employers or others might find it.

Nine months later, his motion to expunge records of his arrest and conviction was approved. His attorney’s fees were picked up by New Leaf and his record was clear.

“I think there were a total of three hearings, and my lawyer told me I only had to attend maybe one of them,” Connor said. “I went to all of them, just because I was always afraid something would happen.

“It was really easy, but I could not have done it without the lawyer they set up for me, and I don’t know what it would have been like if I was in Cook County or someplace else and not our little courthouse.”

Statewide, New Leaf’s partner law clinics say just 3,338 residents have opened cases through their hotline since 2019, a fraction of the estimated 700,000 arrests on cannabis-related charges that could be affected by the state’s marijuana legalization law.

“We have the opposite of the problem we usually have in the legal aid field, which is we have all these people who need help, and we have all these resources to help them, and no one is taking us up on it,” said Peter Honigmann, supervising attorney for New Leaf Illinois.

Felony convictions can make it difficult to get a job, or get access to public housing or other government aid programs. Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2021 announced the state police would automatically remove records of some 400,000 cannabis arrests from a state database, but local police files and courthouses across the state may still have them on the books. Likewise, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office automatically expunged records in 15,000 cases in the state’s largest county, but hundreds of thousands of other cases likely are eligible for erasure.

Generally, any arrest for relatively small quantities of cannabis qualify for expungement, so long as the case does not also include charges related to violent crime or firearms possession, Honigmann said. Getting a more detailed answer will likely require a call to the New Leaf hotline or website. Help from a lawyer, which will be paid for by New Leaf for low-income residents, and at least one trip to the courthouse will also be required. But that’s it.

“I would say it’s well worth it to explore whether you can get this expunged, because the benefits can be huge, and there are really no risks to making the call,” Honigmann said. “A lot of people we talk to say they’ve managed to find work despite their record, or have found ways to work around it, but [expungement] could just make things that much easier.”

Connor left jail and found work at a McDonald’s, the only employer willing to ignore the gap in his resume from his post-arrest years and his criminal conviction. 

“I had never had a problem finding work before this, and once I had a record, there was just this anxiety about ‘when are they going to find out,’” he said.

Connor has since found work in IT with an employer who was willing to overlook his conviction, and once his record was clear, he negotiated a raise. He looks forward to possibly picking up more training or finishing a college degree, and maybe going to work in the legal cannabis industry.

“Having that clean slate is just an incredible weight off my shoulders,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being able to go out and just level-up my life.”

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