Collateral consequences for criminal charges have taken on more long-lasting and devastating forms in the digital age. One such collateral consequence is that mug shots once available only to law enforcement are now posted on the Internet for the whole world to see.
There are some peculiar glitches in Pennsylvania's marijuana laws. One such inconsistency is that possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use, defined as less than 30 grams of cannabis, is an ungraded misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, yet the usual maximum penalty for an ungraded misdemeanor is up to one year incarceration and a $2,500 fine. By contrast, the maximum penalty for summary offenses under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code is 90 days in jail, with maximum fines ranging from $300 to $1,000. Thus, the maximum penalties for possessing a small amount of marijuana in Pennsylvania are already less than the maximum penalty for summary offenses like underage drinking, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and criminal mischief. Despite this, possessing a small amount of marijuana is charged as a misdemeanor instead of a summary offense. You may wonder why reducing possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense is of any consequence, if the penalty is already less than the possible penalties for summary offenses. The simple reason is that misdemeanor convictions carry more collateral consequences than summary offense convictions. For example, all misdemeanors are fingerprintable offenses, while most summary offenses are not fingerprintable offenses. If you are charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana, you will be fingerprinted and photographed. You will then be in criminal data bases maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI. Your marijuana possession charge will appear in every type of criminal background check. If you are merely convicted of a summary offense, your case will only come up in some, but not all criminal background checks. With the exception of retail theft, summary offense convictions will not appear in background checks, which cover only fingerprintable offenses, but they will come up in background checks performed by private companies, as these background check companies will find every docket sheet, uploaded by court systems onto the Internet.
Once upon a time, if you committed a crime in Philadelphia, you could just move to Pittsburgh, and no one would know about your criminal past. There was no electricity, let alone a computer data base. There was really no way for one county to communicate with another county about a suspect's prior record, and even if there were an efficient means of communication, how could the authorities in the arresting county enquire about a criminal record in every other county in the United States?
One of the most common questions I get as a criminal defense attorney is how long a misdemeanor or felony conviction will stay on a person's record. This is of particular concern to my client base, because I practice criminal law in State College, Pennsylvania, and most of my clients are Penn State students, who want a clean record when they start looking for a job upon graduation. The simple answer is that like diamonds, misdemeanor and felony convictions last forever. Having a criminal record is the biggest collateral consequence to a criminal conviction, and it can haunt you for the rest of your life.
As a criminal defense attorney representing students from Penn State and other schools, I must always consider collateral consequences for convictions when determining the best course of action in a given case. It is never good to be charged with a crime as a college student, but when it comes to collateral consequences for conviction, not all majors are created equally. In some professions, a criminal conviction will merely hurt your chances of getting a job, while a conviction will serve as an absolute bar to employment in certain other professions.