BOSTON — A recent ruling by the state’s highest court could make its easier for people with past convictions for pot possession to get those criminal records expunged.

The ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court stems from the case of a Boston man — identified in court filings as K.W. — who was arrested for marijuana possession in 2003 and later sought to have records of the arrest and a previous pot conviction from 15 years ago expunged, citing a 2016 referendum legalizing the drug.

A Boston municipal court judge denied the request, claiming that it wasn’t in the “best interests of justice” to expunge his pot convictions. The man’s case was taken up by lawyers with Greater Boston Legal Services, which filed a lawsuit in 2019 asking the courts to overturn the municipal court judge’s decision.

In its ruling, the SJC reversed the lower court’s order denying his petition for expungement, ruling that the judge “abused his discretion” in the decision.

What’s more, justices ruled that expungement petitions which meet the requirements of state law are entitled to a “strong presumption in favor” of approval.

Pauline Quirion, a lawyer at Greater Boston Legal Services who argued the case before the SJC, said the ruling means people with legitimate expungement requests will face fewer barriers to removing past convictions from their criminal records.

“It’s a very detailed and thoughtful decision that is going to help a lot of people,” Quirion said. “It will make the process of expungement much clearer and easier.”

The litigation was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and other groups, which filed briefs in support of the legal challenge.

Ruth Bourquin, the ACLU’s senior and managing attorney, said the ruling means that judges will have “very limited discretion” to deny expungement requests for offenses that are no longer criminal, such as cannabis possession, and can only deny a request based on “strong and specific reasons” by state prosecutors.

Judges that deny requests must include detailed findings “to afford due process and appellate review” as a result of the SJC’s ruling in the case.

“The decision may bring relief for many with past convictions for decriminalization offenses such as marijuana possession,” she said.

Advocates say criminal records can haunt people long past their punishments, preventing them from landing jobs, renting apartments or getting into college.

They cite studies showing young adults who’ve been charged with crimes and who stay out of trouble for four or more years are less likely to get into trouble again.

A 2018 law allowed Massachusetts residents with previous convictions for offenses that are no longer illegal — including marijuana possession — to have those records expunged.

For a felony charge, petitioners must wait at least seven years until after their sentence was completed to request expungement. For a misdemeanor, the wait is three years.

Major convictions — such as murder, felony assault, drunken driving, domestic battery, rape and other sexual offenses — cannot be expunged.

Unlike sealing a criminal record, which can still be viewed by law enforcement, expungement permanently erases charges from someone’s official criminal record.

But records from the Massachusetts Probation Service, which administers the law, show more than a quarter of the expungement requests made in the fiscal year that ended June 30 were ultimately rejected.

The probation service received 1,142 petitions for expungement of criminal records in fiscal year 2022 but rejected 833, according to the latest state data. Of the 580 requests it deemed eligible and forwarded to district attorneys for consideration, only 204 were ultimately approved by the courts, the data show.

Courts have approved another 149 direct requests for expungement in the previous fiscal year, in which people asked judges to erase their criminal records.

The probation service’s data isn’t broken down by charges, and it’s not clear how many of the expungements were related to marijuana possession.

Advocates say they believe the SJC ruling and recent changes in state law that go into effect in November will help more people qualify for expungement.

The changes to the expungement law, which were included in the state budget, limit the discretion of judges to deny expungement requests for offenses that are no longer considered a crime, such as marijuana possession, and in some cases allow for expungement of past convictions for intent to distribute marijuana.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhinews.com.

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