Last week, Michigan lawmakers approved legislation to let an estimated 200,000 one-time drunken drivers seek to set aside their conviction and recently Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed it into law.
On Tuesday, prosecutors from Missaukee and Wexford counties and the Wexford-Missaukee chief public defender weighed in on the legislation the gave one-time drunken drivers a second chance at a clean record. Whitmer also signed legislation that continues Michigan’s legal blood alcohol content level for driving at .08, eliminating a planned sunset that would have increased the limit to .10.
Missaukee County Prosecutor David DenHouten said he supported the continuation of the .08 BAC legal limit in Michigan and was pleased the sunset provision for the prior statute was addressed. He also didn’t oppose the expungement of a single operating while intoxicated conviction, which the new statute allows.
“It is my understanding that a number of other states allow for the expungement of a single drinking and driving conviction,” he said. “It is also my understanding that prosecutors’ offices will be one of a limited number of persons that will continue to have the ability to view the expungement record for charging purposes if there is a repeat incident of drinking and driving.”
DenHouten does, however, have some concerns regarding other laws that were recently passed that have a bearing on drinking and driving enforcement. For example, DenHouten said there is now a presumption against the court imposing probation on a first OWI offense which means typically there will be no counseling, monitoring, highway safety class or other basic tools that district courts have used in the past to address what may be an alcohol problem for some defendants.
“I have opposed and continue to oppose, the dramatic expansion of the number of convictions that are now allowed to be expunged under the expungement statute,” he said. “In my view, it is no longer creating merely a second chance for deserving individuals, but is having a negative impact on community safety by not adequately addressing the severe problem of repeat offenders.”
Wexford-Missaukee Chief Public Defender Robert Champion said he believes the ability to expunge an OWI conviction is the right step forward. He also said it was time for Michigan to join other jurisdictions around the nation in giving people a second chance.
“We know that criminal records can affect a person long after they’ve completed their sentences. Up until now, a person could have a felony conviction expunged but not a simple first offense OWI,” Champion said. “Even though a first offense OWI is a misdemeanor. A single misdemeanor OWI conviction came with serious penalties and lifelong consequences.”
Champion also said the lifelong consequence of this single past conviction can limit job opportunities, wages and housing, ability to secure vehicle insurance, among other things. Until this new bill, Champion said the person was left to build a life with a criminal record hanging over their head like a second sentence.
The new law levels the playing field for a single, bad choice and Champion said it provides an additional motivation to never make that choice again.
Wexford County Prosecutor Corey Wiggins said drunken driving is probably the most common conviction that people in his profession see for those individuals society doesn’t classify as a criminal. Wiggins said in many cases, it is not even the result of an addiction problem. Generally, Wiggins said when a person is convicted of drunken driving, the person must undergo a substance use assessment.
He also said one of the main objectives of the assessment is to indicate whether or not the subject suffers from any type of addiction and at what level. Most of the time, Wiggins said the first-time offenders don’t have an addiction.
“The new law will allow those persons who made a bad judgment call to not have to suffer from the heavy chains of having a criminal record. Instead, it will permit those who have the one-time drunk driving conviction to show the court that it truly was a one-time bad choice and that they should not be saddled with the conviction as they move forward with their life,” he said. “It is important to note that the expungement is not available if the offense resulted in either death or serious injury.”
When it comes to eliminating the sunset provision on the alcohol level, Wiggins said he believes it is important to have that set in stone. He said it was very troublesome to know that the level might change only because the legislature didn’t or wouldn’t take action on it. That is no longer a concern.