KALAMAZOO, Mich. — A Kalamazoo attorney believes new legislation could be “life changing” for hundreds of thousands of Michiganders.
“It’s just really exciting,” said Sarissa Montague, criminal defense lawyer at Levine and Levine. “It is life changing for people. This is going to make a big difference.”
On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed HB 4219 and HB 4220, which would allow the expungement of convictions for a first violation of operation while intoxicated in certain circumstances.
Eligible instances include:
- Any person operating a vehicle with a BAC of .08 or more
- Any person operating a vehicle while visibly impaired by alcohol or other controlled substances
- A person under 21 years old operating a vehicle with a BAC of .02 or more
- Any person operating a vehicle with any bodily amount of cocaine or a Schedule 1 controlled substance
The laws, which passed with bipartisan support earlier this month, aim to give people a second chance. The state estimates 200,000 people could be impacted.
“It’s not that everybody who has a first-offense drunk driving is going to have that conviction set aside,” said Montague. “You need to file an application and you need to prove that this was a one-time incident and that the changes that you have made in your life since this occurred are worthy of having it set aside.”
According to Montague, first-offense drunk driving convictions stayed on a person’s record forever. She says it often impacted a person’s ability to get a job or secure housing.
“What it does is it stigmatizes that person as a criminal for their entire life,” said Montague. “Many, many, many drunk drivers… are just regular people who made a bad decision one night. Went to a party and then drove home, went out to dinner and then drove home, and that’s all that happened.”
The bills say people must wait five years after their sentence ends before requesting expungement. A petition must be submitted to the court, which would then be reviewed and determined by a judge. Incidents that caused death or serious injury to a victim do not qualify.
“If you’re eligible, it’s because you’ve earned that,” said Montague.
The bills are part of a larger effort by the state to reform the criminal justice system. Earlier this year, a series of laws took effect that focus on expunging marijuana offenses and expanding to other misdemeanor and felony convictions.
Montague hopes it leads to better futures for Michiganders.
“It helps people with employment; it helps people with living, and again, that trickles down to the entire family,” said Montague. “It really is an opportunity for people to start over and have the ability for others to see that the changes that they have made.”
HB 4219 and HB4220 go into effect in February.