Baltimore’s top prosecutor has filed a rarely used legal petition in order to vacate 3,778 convictions for cannabis possession.
State Attorney Marilyn Mosby used a petition called “writ of error coram nobis” that allows a court to reopen cases when substantial error is found that wasn’t apparent in initial judgements. Mosby argues that the highly unusual “Maryland v. Maryland” filing in state court is necessary to “right an extraordinary wrong.”
If granted, the petition could erase thousands of cannabis possession convictions.
Mosby says the filing is a first step towards achieving retroactive justice by acknowledging racial disparities in how marijuana possession cases where policed and prosecuted over the years in Baltimore.
The move comes at a time when the city of Baltimore is under a federal oversight program due to discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.
“The sordid history of marijuana prohibition lies in ethnic and racial bigotry,” she writes in the filing, which notes that racial disparities in possession arrests continue to exist in majority-black Baltimore even after Maryland’s 2014 decriminalization of amounts less than 10 grams.
Mosby earlier announced that her office will no longer prosecute any cannabis possession cases, no matter the quantity or the individual’s criminal record. She said that the city’s limited resources should be targeted towards violent crimes and organized drug syndicates.
Thiru Vignarajah, an ex-Maryland deputy attorney general who unsuccessfully ran against Mosby in last year’s primary for Baltimore’s state attorney job, has dismissed her moves this week as a stunt, noting that only 78 out of more than 1,100 possession cases actually went forward since 2014.
“Ending prosecutions does not end arrests & changing policy requires partnership — without the police, this is just hollow grandstanding,” he tweeted.
Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle responded to the filing by emphasizing that officers are sworn to enforce existing laws made by lawmakers. He stressed that his officers will continue to make arrests for illegal marijuana possession “unless and until the state legislature changes the law regarding marijuana possession.”
Tuggle’s position was supported by Harford Country Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler.
“I wanted to be sure the citizens of Harford County understand, this latest disappointing action of the City State’s Attorney has no impact here. We will continue to enforce the State’s laws in regards to marijuana possession because that is what we are sworn to do,” Gahler said.
Baltimore’s mayor, Catherine Pugh, said she is supportive of attempts to redress racial disparities in policing and prosecutions, while stressing that drug dealers fuel violence. She urged state lawmakers to “look carefully at these issues” to figure out a unified approach.
University of Baltimore law professor David Jaros said that it is too early to tell whether Mosby’s actions are a political play or one that might meaningfully change marijuana and criminal justice in Maryland.
“It’s political theater if all it does is get your name out there and nothing changes. But if its politics that promotes change, it’s something different,” he said.
Jaros pointed out that one criticism of Mosby is that she positions herself among America’s “progressive” city prosecutors but some argue they haven’t seen nearly enough progressive policies coming from her office.
“This is a legitimate move that is part of a move across the country that she is now aligning herself with. And I think it’s a productive move. But whether or not it’s a panacea I think is a very legitimate question given there weren’t a large number of these cases going forward,” he said.