Arizona Supreme Court Rules on Expungement Issue, Deciding State Can Appeal Trial Court’s Decision on Marijuana Conviction

In a January 2024 opinion issued by the Arizona Supreme Court, the question of whether the State can appeal a trial court’s decision to expunge a defendant’s record was at issue. The court had to decide whether the State was legally able to challenge a lower court’s order granting a defendant’s request for expungement and restoration of his civil rights, which was issued in response to a marijuana-related offense. On appeal, the court concluded that the State had a reasonable right to challenge the lower court’s order, given that the drug offense ultimately affected the “substantial rights of the State.”


This case was based on an incident in which the State charged a defendant with possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of narcotic drugs. The State charged the defendant in 2011, and the defendant pleaded guilty to several of his charges several months later. As part of this plea, the defendant admitted to having provided the means to another to sell or transport marijuana.

Nine years after the guilty plea, Arizona adopted Proposition 207, which is a law allowing trial courts to erase (or “expunge”) defendants’ records when the records pertain to a certain category of marijuana offenses. Because the defendant’s offense was eligible for expungement, he filed a petition with the trial court. The trial court granted the petition, and the State appealed.

The Court’s Ruling

Once the State appealed the expungement, the higher court had to decide whether it was procedurally appropriate for the State to file this appeal. Importantly, a party in a case can only appeal if the ruling affects the “substantial rights” of the party. Thus, the question here was whether the State’s substantial rights were affected by the trial court’s decision.

Ultimately, the higher court decided that the State’s rights were, indeed, affected by the trial court’s expungement. The State has an interest, explained the court, in making sure defendants face consequences when they break the law. In addition, a defendant’s previous convictions can affect their later sentences for different convictions, which affects the State’s interest in ensuring that defendants are properly sentenced both in the present and in the future.

Because of the reality of this interest, then, the State was legally able to appeal the expungement. The court did not ultimately decide whether to grant the State’s appeal; it only concluded that the State had a valid right to challenge the lower court’s ruling. With that, the court remanded the case down to the trial court for additional proceedings, so that the trial court could determine whether the appeal had merit.

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