Cleary Gottlieb Secures Groundbreaking Class Action Victory to Seal Hundreds of Old Marijuana Convictions

August 12, 2019

Cleary Gottlieb, in partnership with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the Legal Action Center, Community Service Society, The Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, and Neighborhood Defender Service, has won a class action petition to seal marijuana possession convictions for over 300 people under New York Criminal Procedure Law § 160.59.

Criminal Procedure Law § 160.59 was enacted in 2017 to provide this kind of relief. It allows people to apply to seal certain types of criminal records after at least 10 years have passed. But, until now, few people have benefitted—to date only 1,279 people statewide have had their records sealed, even though an estimated 600,000 are eligible. The class action lawsuit makes sealing proactive instead of requiring people who are eligible for sealing to navigate a complex application process.

By moving to seal, petitioners sought to minimize collateral damage caused by these criminal convictions, which can be wide-ranging and persistent. People often face significant obstacles to employment, housing, and other basic rights for years or even decades after a conviction, even for low-level marijuana possession. These obstacles should be strictly reduced once the conviction is sealed. The class members are individuals with convictions for low-level marijuana possession (specifically, for violations of New York Penal Law § 221.10(1)), who have no other misdemeanor or felony convictions anywhere in New York, who have had no New York convictions for at least 10 years, and who do not have any undisposed arrest or charge pending in New York.

“This decision is an important step in broadening the reach of the positive impact of New York’s conviction sealing laws. We were proud to partner in this effort to apply the class action mechanism to Criminal Procedure Law § 160.59 in order to address the hurdles that prevent eligible individuals from sealing their criminal convictions,” said Cleary associate Cathi Choi. “Long-standing criminal convictions can significantly impact the employment opportunities, housing and financial stability, and quality of life of the communities they affect. Laws such as Criminal Procedure Law § 160.59, that seal or expunge these records, are extremely important for allowing those impacted to rebuild their lives after convictions. This decision is a positive step toward reducing the collateral consequences associated with criminal records,” said Cleary associate Courtnie Drigo.