Michigan House panel takes another go at DUI expungement bills

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan House panel has pushed new bills through committee that would allow for the expungement of first-time offenses for driving while intoxicated. 

The passage through the House Judiciary Committee comes less than two months after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in January declined to sign similar bills, exercising a "pocket veto" by allowing the deadline for signing to pass. 

Whitmer's office did not explain why she vetoed the bills, which passed last year by large margins in the House and Senate that included Democratic lawmakers. But Whitmer's office didn't rule out Tuesday support of the legislation.

"The governor let several lame duck bills expire without her signature for varying reasons, including a failure to negotiate the bills, disagreement on the underlying policy or the complexity of the subject matter and the need for further discussion," said Bobby Leddy, spokesman for Whitmer's office.

"While the governor is not making any decision on this bill now, it is important that all points of view, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have a seat at the table during the legislative process to discuss this proposal."

The bills, which passed 11-2 out of committee, are now headed to the House floor. They would allow offenders to petition a judge to set aside their convictions for first-time drunken driving offenses. 

Rep. Graham Filler, the DeWitt Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he believes the fortunes of the legislation have changed this time around. 

"There has been really good back and forth with the governor and her team," Filler said. "I think she agrees with the policy. I think they just want to be part of the process and felt like they didn't get that chance during lame duck."

Attorney General Dana Nessel in a committee hearing last week said the legislation is "incredibly important" and said she was disappointed the reform didn't become law last session. As a prosecutor and defense attorney, Nessel said she handled thousands of drunken driving offenses.

"There are people who are good people that have sometimes lapses of judgment and sometimes by virtue of circumstance end up committing a crime, and it can never be removed from their record," said Nessel, a Democrat. 

The bills prohibit expungement for subsequent operating while intoxicated offenses or for drunken or drugged driving offenses that lead to death or serious injury. A violation of the state's "super drunk" law, or those involving drivers with a blood alcohol content above 0.17, also would be excluded from expungement eligibility.

Law enforcement would still maintain access to the record of the expunged offense for reference. 

Rep. Tenisha Yancey, a Harper Woods Democrat and sponsor of one of the expungement bills, testified during committee last week that she understood the gravity of the crime they were looking to expunge. Yancey's father was killed by a drunken driver just before her 14th birthday. 

"While I seriously understand the seriousness of this offense, things of this nature will not be included," Yancey said of drunken driving offenses causing injury or death. "I do believe that everyone deserves a second chance. It took me a very long time to get to that point."

Rep. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe, sponsored a second bill allowing for driving under the influence  expungement. Bellino, who has been open about his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, said a key part of the legislation is the ability for prosecutors and judges to have access to records even after expungement to ensure repeat offenders don't take advantage of the process.

"This will help people get a job, help them go to Canada, help them get their life together," he said last week. "I've got plenty of friends — one being a deacon at a local church in town, one being a county commissioner in my county — they got them 25, 30, 35 years ago. They live a great life now, but can't get them expunged."

During Tuesday's committee hearing, Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, attempted to move a third drunken driving bill, sponsored by Iron Mountain Republican Rep. Beau LaFave, out of committee. LaFave was an initial sponsor of the drunken driving expungement bill sent to Whitmer last session. 

The committee declined to take up LaFave's bill Tuesday. 

The House Judiciary Committee also discussed bills that would decriminalize some moped and snowmobile registration violations, eliminate requirements for collection of biometric data for some traffic violations and modify penalties and protocol related to driving while on a suspended license or driving without proof of a license. Those bills were not immediately reported out of committee.