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Some Michigan drunken drivers would get records expunged in bipartisan bill

drunken driving

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

First-time drunken drivers may get their records wiped clean under bills that would expand Michigan’s felony expungement law to include about 200,000 people convicted of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

A bipartisan group of Michigan leaders announced Wednesday their support for a bill that would expand on landmark criminal justice reform signed into law in the state in October  that offers automatic record expungement for various low-level felonies.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, released a joint statement with two Democrats, Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Attorney General Dana Nessel on Wednesday to support House Bill 6453.

The bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday by a unanimous vote, was sponsored by Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) in November. The bill is likely now to be considered in the current lame-duck session by the full House of Representatives where, because of Chatfield’s support, it has a good chance of passing in the Republican-controlled chamber. The bill would then need to be approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to become law.

LaFave told Bridge Michigan “that the appetite existed” within the state Senate for a bill that would expunge these records once Clean Slate passed, and that he would be surprised if even 10 senators voted against the bill. 

“This is the right thing to do for people who have made a one-time mistake and earnestly want to move past it,” Chatfield said in a statement, “But this is also the right thing to do for their family, friends and neighbors who benefit from having people back on the job and parents able to drive their kids to school all around the state.”

“A one-time mistake shouldn’t mean a lifetime of punishment. This is simply the right thing to do,” McCormack said in the same statement.

The Clean Slate legislation passed earlier this year with bipartisan support, and will go into effect when the implementation process of the law is completed, a process expected to take two years. The law will automatically expunge records of anyone convicted of an eligible misdemeanor seven years after their sentencing, and of anyone who committed certain felonies in the state 10 years after sentencing or from when they are released from prison — whichever happens later.

Studies have found expungement contributes to higher wages and better jobs for people with criminal records without impacting public safety. One study found those who had their records expunged earned an average of 23 percent more the following year.

Operating While Intoxicated offenses were not originally a part of the Clean Slate legislation, along with domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse offenses and crimes that can bring a life sentence.

Michigan residents with more than one OWI on their record or who were convicted of drunk driving offense causing death or serious injury won’t be eligible for expungement. Anyone who caused physical harm (including to themselves) or damaged property during the event that led to their conviction will also not be eligible. Felony OWI convictions also will not be expunged.

Expungement will also only affect public records, meaning a potential employer would not be able to see a candidate’s record, but the courts and police will still have access to expunged convictions.

LaFave said a legal expert estimated that about 200,000 Michiganders would be eligible to have their misdemeanors expunged if the bill passed. 

Under the current bill, OWI offenders would be required to apply for expungement in court and have a judge grant the request, unlike other low-level felonies, in which record will be expunged automatically.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an anti-drunken driving advocacy group, opposes expungement for those convicted of OWI. “Michigan must ensure that those who drive drunk or impaired by other drugs are held accountable for their deadly choice. Expungement does not lead to accountability or saved lives,” Helen Witty, national president of the group, said in a statement opposing the legislation.

In 2018, more than 5,300 people were injured and 315 people died in crashes where a driver was under the influence of alcohol in Michigan. The rate of drunken driving in the state fell 16 percent from 2017 to 2018

Clean slate legislation has been gaining momentum across the nation, with Michigan joining Pennsylvania and Utah earlier this year, and other states like Washington and Louisiana passing legislation to clear some records. Michigan was the first state to allow the expungement of low-level felonies.

Jessica Kelley, manager of criminal justice & civil liberties at R Street, a conservative think tank, and longtime proponent of Clean Slate laws, told Bridge Michigan that “creating this path towards a clear criminal history record, Michigan could continue to demonstrate its commitment to lessening the collateral consequences that impact housing, employment, and education for many Michiganders.” 

“These one-time mistakes can have lasting impacts on career opportunities, educational possibilities and one’s overall quality of life,” Nessel said in the statement with McCormack and Chatfield. 

“With certain exceptions, such as repeat offenders or those who have seriously injured or killed others during the course of their crime, this legislation will provide those who made a mistake and learned from it with an opportunity to put that lapse in judgment behind them and move on with their lives.”

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