The marijuana decriminalization bill recently introduced by Pennsylvania State Senator Mike Stack is a nice first step, but does not address all the current problems caused by Prohibition. The bill would reduce possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use (less than 30 grams) to a summary offense for the first two offenses. Anyone unlucky enough to receive a third small amount of marijuana charge could be charged with an ungraded misdemeanor, at the discretion of the district attorney. Most Pennsylvania summary offenses are punishable by up to 90 days in jail, but Senator Stack's bill would eliminate the possibility of jail time for the first two convictions. Rather than jail time or probation, defendants would be subject to court costs and a fine not to exceed $500.
Recently, Centre County, Pennsylvania defense attorneys received notice that the filing fees for expungements will increase from $15 to $75 effective January 2, 2014. The filing fee had remained at $15 for many years, even though it was costing the Clerk of Courts Office a lot more than $15 to handle the voluminous, bureaucratic paperwork and procedures associated with each expungement filing. With the increased fee, I suspect that the Centre County Clerk of Courts will go from losing money on expungements to making a small profit, which will offset losses in other areas.
Zayd Issah, an erstwhile highly touted linebacker in the 2013 Penn State recruiting class, has accepted a favorable plea offer, which will spare him a violent felony conviction and additional jail time. During Arts Fest in downtown State College last summer, Issah was involved in an altercation with police, leading to two counts of aggravated assault on police officers, one count of simple assault, five counts of resisting arrest and one count of possession of small amount of marijuana for personal use. Pursuant to the plea agreement accepted by Judge Pamela A. Ruest of the Centre County Court of Common Pleas, Issah pled guilty to simple assault, resisting arrest and possession of a small amount of marijuana for a sentence of five days to 23.5 months. Issah previously served five days before posting bail, so he will serve additional jail time in this case only if he violates parole.
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.
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.