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Michigan moves to allow first-time drunk drivers to expunge conviction

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has already vetoed a bill allowing expungement of first-time drunk driving offenses. But backers hope she changes her mind. (Shutterstock image)

LANSING — Many first-time drunk or drugged drivers would have the chance to clear the conviction from their criminal record under bipartisan expungement legislation approved Wednesday by the Michigan House. 

It’s the latest in a criminal justice reform movement that has united Republicans and Democrats in Lansing. 

“People seeking this second chance have fulfilled their sentencing obligations paid their part and are simply seeking an opportunity to have a regular, normal life and be able to afford employment and housing,” said Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer “pocket vetoed” a drunk driving expungement bill the Legislature had approved late last year in a lame-duck session, but the first-term Democrat offered no specific objection or explanation for the rejection. 

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The bills are opposed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and groups representing sheriffs and prosecutors. They contend the threat of a criminal record should remain a deterrent in a state that had more than 1,000 impaired driving deaths in 2020. 

The plan “undermines the seriousness of the violent crime of impaired driving and reduces accountability,” Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, wrote in a February letter to lawmakers.  

MADD said it could only support the proposal if lawmakers only offered expungement to first-time offenders who used an interlock ignition device in their vehicle for six months, but the House did not include that suggestion in the two bills approved Wednesday in 93-17 votes. 

Backers including Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel argue the proposal builds on a major new law the governor signed that will establish automatic expungement for some criminal convictions. 

“I think it’s very, very important that this is signed into law,” Nessel told lawmakers last month, noting she planned to discuss the proposal directly with Whitmer. 

The House legislation would only apply to first-time offenders convicted of operating a vehicle while intoxicated, who could petition a judge to remove a misdemeanor from their record three years after completing any parole or probation. 

Expungement would not be allowed in cases of drunk or drugged driving that resulted in death or serious injury to another motorist. 

Yancey, who told colleagues her father was killed by a drunk driver when she was a teenager, said the expungement plan would not apply to people who commit such “heinous crimes.”

“They are not heinous people,” she said of the first-time offenders who would be eligible under the legislation she sponsored with Rep. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe. “They are our neighbors, loved ones, family members, our friends and our colleagues.”

Drunk driving convictions carry steeper penalties, and can have much steeper costs than other similarly charged crimes, Nessel said, estimating that offenders often pay between $5,000 and $10,000 in court costs, attorney fees and fines. They also face driver’s license sanctions and are often required to perform drug or alcohol testing as a condition of probation. 

Nessel, who worked as a criminal defense attorney before her election, noted she had “many many clients that simply could not work or go to school and also complete their probation because they had to test so frequently that it made it almost impossible for them to hold down a job.”

If also approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, the drunk and drugged driving conviction expungement option would become available to offenders beginning April 11. That’s the same date a more expansive criminal record expungement law begins to take effect. 

Beginning next month, the “clean slate” law, which Whitmer signed last October, will allow people to petition courts to remove up to three felony convictions from their criminal records, along with an unlimited amount of misdemeanors. 

And beginning in October 2022, some crimes will automatically be expunged.

The law will not allow offenders to erase certain crimes, including felonies punishable by more than 10 years in prison, violent crimes, human trafficking and “crimes of dishonesty” like forgery.

Experts say the law could double the number of residents who qualify for expungement in Michigan. 

That’s the case in Detroit, where Mayor Mike Duggan is urging residents to apply for the city’s application assistance program immediately.

Nessel said her office is also working with Michigan law schools to organize statewide expungement clinics that will help residents navigate the new law. 

That initiative is “still in the planning stages,” Nessel spokesperson Kelly Rossman-McKinney said Wednesday, noting times and locations will be announced at a later date.

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