By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Some people found guilty of possessing marijuana in Colorado at the time the state legalized recreational pot may have their convictions thrown out, a state appellate court ruled Thursday, though legal experts said the decision would apply to few cases.
Colorado and Washington state voted in 2012 to legalize the possession and recreational use of small amounts of marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. Colorado opened its first retail pot shops in January, and Washington is scheduled to follow suit later this year.
In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals found that a woman whose 2011 conviction for possessing cannabis had been under appeal was entitled to have her sentence and conviction overturned because of a "significant change in the law."
The panel agreed with defense attorneys who argued that the legal marijuana law should be applied retroactively. While noting that laws generally are forward-looking, the judges said that there were some legal exceptions.
"The general presumption of prospective application, however, is subject to a doctrine established by our General Assembly and Supreme Court enabling a defendant to benefit retroactively from a significant change in the law," Judge Mary Hoak wrote in the 16-page opinion.
A spokeswoman for Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said the office is reviewing the decision but would likely appeal.
"The impact of this ruling is very limited given that possession of an ounce or less of marijuana was already a petty offense subject to a $100 fine," Suthers said in a written statement. "No one could be incarcerated for such a petty offense."
Longtime Colorado defense attorney and legal analyst Mark Johnson said the ruling only applies to cases in which appeals were not exhausted, and not to all defendants convicted of possession under the old law.
"Realistically, this will have a minimal impact because it only deals with defendants who were convicted at trial and whose appeals were pending when the new law went into effect," Johnson said.
The case involved the conviction of Brandi Russell, who was charged with child abuse and drug possession after she and her husband took their infant son to a hospital with a broken leg in 2010. Russell was acquitted of child abuse, but was convicted on the drug charges.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)