Confusion over expungement laws prompts Kent Co. how-to guide

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While it’s clear some people are taking advantage of Michigan’s newly expanded expungement laws, a Kent County commissioner wants to ensure everyone can access the process.

“I had a lot of residents and constituents coming to me with questions about the expungements,” explained Robert Womack, commissioner for Kent County’s 17th District, which encompasses a portion of Grand Rapids’ southeast side.

“Convictions affect them in housing. It’s affecting them in employment, and they really want to get their lives back on track,” said Womack, referring to people with felonies on their records. “I know there were some expungement clinics, and I still would have individuals asking questions. … So, I reached out to prosecuting attorney Chris Becker.”

The resulting collaboration led to the creation of “A Guide to Set Aside/Expunge Past Criminal Convictions,” a booklet that provides step-by-step instructions on how to apply for expungement.

A Guide to Set Aside/Expunge Past Criminal Convictions

“We want to make it clear, IT IS POSSIBLE to set aside your convictions without the assistance of an attorney,” declared the guide’s prelude, which was signed by Becker and Womack.

The new law went into effect in April 2020, and the Kent County guide detailing how and when to apply for expungement went live in November.

Becker told News 8 his office is already overwhelmed with expungement applications.

“We’re getting a ton of applications now. So, the word is out,” said Becker, who estimated his office is processing 10 to 12 applications a week.

Becker said convictions most commonly targeted for expungement in Kent County are retail fraud (shoplifting) and drug offenses.

The prosecutor’s office must review each application for eligibility.

“A person may seek to have not more than three eligible felony offenses, and an unlimited number of eligible misdemeanors, set aside,” read the Kent County guide.

“No more than TWO assaultive crimes may be set aside in a person’s lifetime, whether they are felony or misdemeanor,” explained the guide, which goes on to list assaultive crimes, like assault and battery and home invasion.

Offenses punishable by life imprisonment are not eligible for expungement.

Neither are offenses involving child sexually abusive material, certain levels of child abuse and criminal sexual conduct, and felony domestic violence if the person has a previous misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence.

Additionally, for felonies, the offender must wait at least seven years to apply for expungement.

Michigan Department of Attorney General: Expungements

For misdemeanors, the wait is at least three years.

“(The applicant) has to provide notice to us, notice to the state police, so we can review and say, ‘okay, this looks okay,’ and in general, we kind of leave it up to the court if everything checks out,” explained Becker. “There may be certain things we take a position on, (for instance) if a victim contacts us or if a victim has input, we would say, ‘we have issues (with the expungement).'”

The law requires that victims of assaultive crimes be notified of the application to set aside the conviction.  

Misdemeanor marijuana convictions were among the convictions that became eligible for expungement as of April 11, 2021.

Beginning Feb. 19, 2022, people can apply to set aside first-time operating while impaired offenses.

While Becker noted the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan did not support the move to allow expungement of any drunk driving-related convictions, the organization did support the set aside expansion in general, working with state lawmakers to develop the “Clean the Slate” legislation.

“If someone’s corrected their life and they’ve got away from a life of crime, we want them to be productive members of society. I mean that’s the ultimate goal I think for any prosecutor,” said Becker. “One contact with the criminal justice system, and you’re done. That’s the ideal. People screw up. People do stupid things. But, if you just do it that one time, and you move along and be a productive member of society, I think any prosecutor is on board with that.”

Womack spoke of a recent situation he found particularly troubling.

A man was released from prison and had nowhere to go, so he was staying at his mother’s apartment.  

“Once (management) found out she was allowing a felon to stay in the apartment, she was asked to leave. … Even though she said, ‘he’ll have to go.’ She broke her lease by having a felon in there. So, it puts families in a bad predicament to watch a person be homeless that really has a family that cares about them, that wants them to live with them, but they have a felony. We have apartment buildings that just don’t allow felons to live there.”

Womack also created a questionnaire to help people determine their eligibility for expungement.

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