Slow process of Missouri marijuana expungement drags on months after constitutional deadlines

Iron County Circuit Clerk Sammye White balances on a stepladder as she searches for an old marijuana case in the office storage room in Ironton (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).

IRONTON — Sammye White balanced carefully on a stepladder as she pulled a hefty box marked “1993” off the top shelf.

White, the elected circuit clerk for Iron County in southeast Missouri, was searching for an old marijuana case. 

The small storage room near her office is packed with faded ledgers indexing criminal cases by year, along with the cardboard boxes containing the case files. 

When White learned in November 2022 that her team had one year to review every marijuana case in the county — going back to at least the 1970s — to determine it needed to be expunged under a new state cannabis law, she slightly panicked. 

Aside from the work, her only two clerks were both about to retire. 

“I thought, ‘How in the world are we going to accomplish this?’” White remembers.

Thankfully one of the clerks, Denise Anderson, agreed “out of the goodness of her heart,” White said, to continue on part-time to help get through the list of potential eligible cases. 

It’s a tedious process, she said, that took Anderson more than a year to review about 500 cases, leading to about 100 expungements.

Circuit clerks across the state are going through the same balancing act and hurricane of work as White. 

Under the 2022 constitution amendment that legalized marijuana, courts were required to complete misdemeanors by last June and felonies by last December. Those deadlines came and went, and many counties are still months or more away from completing the task. 

While clerks were given lists from the Office of State Administrator and Highway Patrol for digital records that might qualify, it was just a starting point. 

The real tedious work is still ahead for many of them — going through the paper records. For these records, court clerks have to read summaries for every single criminal record. There’s no way to run a report to search certain criminal codes.

Paper files largely end in the early 2000s, and the first marijuana-related drug statutes are from 1971, according to information the state administrator provided to court clerks. 

In Iron County, White is on the 1993 files. 

As courts statewide rushed to meet the constitutional deadlines, establishing a systematic method to track their work fell by the wayside for many of them. 

Now it’s hard to say how many cases have been reviewed — and impossible to say how many more are left to go, court officials said.

The Independent requested data for every county on how many cases they reviewed and how many were expunged. According to numbers compiled by the Missouri Supreme Court, about 123,000 marijuana cases have been expunged as of mid-May. 

That number is the easiest to count because expungement orders are approved by a judge and processed the same way statewide. 

The mystery is how many cases clerks have looked through. The Supreme Court estimates that about 273,000 cases have been reviewed, which would mean courts are expunging 45% of the cases they reviewed. 

But this estimate does not include the paper records. 

Aside from this, spokeswoman Beth Riggert for the Missouri Supreme Court said the clerks’ daily work continues with more than 1.38 million new case filings. 

“As the chief justice has said consistently, the front-line workers are the heroes of our courts,” Riggert said. “They deserve our ongoing gratitude for everything they do to serve their local communities.”

Counting the paper records

Like White, Nodaway County Circuit Clerk Elaine Wilson had no idea how her team of three clerks was going to complete all the marijuana expungements in general — but particularly in a rush. 

Wilson said she was fortunate that one of her clerks, Melissa Kohlleppel, volunteered to take on the project.  

“She just dived right in it,” Wilson said. “I didn’t have to ask. She just took it all on herself and just did it.”

For Wilson, each step of the process is important, she said, and she’d only trust an experienced clerk to do it. 

Kohlleppel said she’s gone through the three different lists of potential digital files, and now she’s looking through all the paper records. She hopes to be done by the end of the year.

“It’s been awful,” she said. “I just don’t think they realized what was going into this whenever they passed it,” referring to the tight deadline.

According to the state numbers, Nodaway County has expunged 100% of the 535 cases reviewed. 

But that’s not accurate, Kohlleppel said. She didn’t realize there’s a special code for the cases she reviewed but didn’t expunge.

After the constitutional amendment was approved by voters in November 2022, a state court committee quickly came up with a code for “reviewed but deemed ineligible” for clerks to input in the system. 

Problem is, some circuit courts didn’t know the code existed — and still don’t. The only way the Supreme Court can track how many cases have been reviewed is by running a report on this code. 

The code was a small piece in a mountain of information clerks had to quickly digest in webinars and onlines resources that court officials rushed to get out in December 2022. 

White kept a binder of all that information, and it’s at least 200 pages.

“It was an incredible undertaking for court staff to implement in a short amount of time,” Riggert said, “all while ensuring the ordinary business of the courts continued.”

And even with the code, that report won’t include the number of paper records courts have reviewed. Clerks must create a digital “shell case” to mark that a paper case is expunged, but state officials are not requiring this for cases that are reviewed but not expunged. 

Riggert said state officials appreciate how hard the courts are working on the expungements and did not want to give clerks additional “unnecessary duties.”

 “The number of cases expunged is likely to be only a fraction of the total cases reviewed,” Riggert said. “…we have no centralized mechanism for tracking the thousands of non-electronic cases our local courts are reviewing.”

The state clerk told lawmakers in January that she estimated about 10% of the cases the clerks review are eligible for expungement. 

Yet according to the data, the average is about 45%. 

In 26 out or 115 counties, nearly every record — 80% or more — that clerks reviewed resulted in an expungement, according to the state’s numbers. Only five counties were 15% or less.

'Many unknowns'

In St. Louis city, archived cases are stored in the old Globe Democrat building on Tucker Boulevard several blocks north of the court. 

“For the ones at the Globe, our staffers have been retrieving them by van, bringing them back to the courthouse where clerks go through them by hand,” said Joel Currier, spokesman for the 22nd Circuit Court. 

The court has relied on state “special assistance funding” to hire part-time clerks, many of them former retired court clerks with experience, to work on these expungements, he said. 

These funds come from the revenues of recreational marijuana sales. 

To expunge a case, court clerks write an order for a judge. After approval, clerks email all law enforcement agencies to instruct them to clear the case from their records. Then, they mail the person whose case was expunged. 

The most challenging ones are where it’s not the only charge in the case — clerks have to redact only the marijuana charge information from the records.

Christian County Circuit Clerk Barb Stillings has a leg up compared to other courts who are going through paper records. About 12 years ago, Stillings applied for special assistance funding from the state to digitize their paper files. 

On the plus side, it means her team doesn’t have to move around heavy boxes. Sadly, Stillings didn’t have enough money to make the records searchable by criminal charge. So her team still has to go through every single record to check for marijuana offenses. 

Her team printed the case indexes on 25,000 cases going back to the 1970s, and like St. Louis, she has a team of part-time workers looking through those summaries the special funds are paying for. 

When the funds became available in the fall of 2023, Christian County asked for one of the higher amounts, about $380,000, to pay for overtime and part time employees to work on the expungements. Stillings ended up only using $23,000 of that.

“Just because I’ve asked for all this money, do I have enough people to work on it?” Stillings told The Independent in February. “It’s so many unknowns.”

She understands why some other counties used very little of the funds or didn’t ask for any at all.

“Some counties didn’t have anybody who could come work part time, or staff that wanted to work overtime,” she said. 

Iron County requested $22,500 but spent less than $4,000. That number will definitely increase in the coming months, White said.

When Iron County made it through all the digital records this spring, White had a short-lived moment of relief. Recently, White found another substantial report of digital cases she didn’t know was available to her. 

“I almost feel like we’re starting over again,” she said. “But it is what it is, and we will work on it as hard as we can.”

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