Many background check companies look for and report ordinance violations, so it is not as if these tickets will be invisible. On top of that, the influx of ordinance violations will make clearing criminal records more difficult. Currently, most people arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis are able to avoid major penalty. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, 90% of the misdemeanor cannabis cases in Cook County from 2006-2010 were dropped. For the few first-offenders whose cases aren’t dropped, they usually receive court supervision. Under each of these scenarios, the charge can be expunged as if it never happened.
But under Illinois expungement law, convictions for ordinance violations can prevent a person from expunging an otherwise expungeable criminal record. In some cases, they can even prevent expungeable offenses from even getting sealed. I fear that many will simply pay the small fine, accept a conviction, and not realize the implications of what they are agreeing to.
The people most hurt by this procedural change would actually be juveniles. Unlike with criminal charges, juveniles can be convicted of ordinance violations. To make matters worse, those ordinance violations are not automatically sealed. The laws in Illinois are designed to prevent mistakes made by kids from following them for the rest of their lives, but this ordinance would subvert those intentions.
This is precisely what happened to a former client of mine. In a county that had already adopted this “decriminalization” procedure, he was convicted of the ordinance violation for marijuana at age 15. Years later, he wanted to become a cop, but was denied due to having a drug conviction, an automatic bar for that agency. He could have had the ordinance violation sealed, but police are one of the few agencies capable of seeing sealed records. That meant his only option to become a police officer was to seek a Governor’s pardon, which can be a costly process that often takes years. If instead he had been charged as a juvenile for the criminal offense of possession of cannabis, he could have quickly and easily expunged it.
So, while the proposed Chicago ordinance to lower the severity of small marijuana possession certainly has it merits, the change in procedure would not be without its warts as well.