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Receiving a Pardon in Michigan May Make You Eligible for Expungement

People v. Van Heck
Court of Appeals of Michigan
July 16, 2002

Holding: A defendant who receives a pardon that serves to virtually erase prior convictions is eligible for expungement under MLCS § 780.621 as long as there is only one Michigan offense left to set aside.

Why This Case is Important: Michigan’s expungement statute requires that a defendant have only one conviction arising from one offense in one occurrence. If a defendant does not meet this threshold requirement, he will not be able to set aside his criminal record.

However, MLCS § 780.621 does not specifically address convictions that have been pardoned. A pardon, such as a gubernatorial pardon, that serves to completely erase a defendant’s conviction such that it is as if the offense never happened, may allow a defendant to expunge his criminal record in Michigan, even if he has been previously convicted of another crime.

This result arises from the effect of a pardon on a defendant’s conviction. Once a pardon is granted, the defendant’s legal disabilities are removed. Indeed, in the eyes of the law, the defendant is legally innocent of his pardoned crimes. As such, if a defendant had six convictions like the defendant in this case, and five were pardoned such that the convictions were erased, then the defendant would be eligible for criminal record expungement under MLCS § 780.621.

It is important to note that the effect of a pardon can vary by state. In this case, the pardon was administered by the State of Connecticut. The court analogized the effects of Connecticut’s pardon to a gubernatorial pardon, which served to completely remove the conviction and render the former defendant legally innocent. Because such a pardon made it so that in the eyes of the law the conviction never occurred, the court determined that the defendant was eligible for criminal record expungement under the Michigan statute.

Facts of This Case: Between 1975 and 1978, the defendant in this case was convicted of five misdemeanor offenses in the state of Connecticut. In 1979, the defendant was subsequently convicted of another crime while in Michigan. In 1999, the defendant petitioned for an unconditional and absolute pardon for the five crimes he committed in Connecticut. After the pardons were granted, the defendant petitioned to set aside his 1979 Michigan conviction pursuant to MLCS § 780.621. The District Attorney opposed the petition on the grounds that the Michigan statute required that the defendant have only one conviction. The trial court denied the defendant’s request.

The Court of Appeals of Michigan reversed the trial court’s decision. The court of appeals determined that the pardons that the defendant received served to virtually erase his five previous convictions. The court of appeals held that, in the eyes of the law, the defendant only had one conviction and the other offenses should not be considered in determining the defendant’s eligibility for expungement under MLCS § 780.621.

As a result, the court of appeals concluded that the trial court was wrong to conclude that the defendant was ineligible for expungement relief.

Key Language: In light of the sweeping manner in which the Connecticut statutes erase a conviction upon pardon, the pardon granted defendant similarly blots out of existence his guilt, so that under the law he is considered to have never committed the pardoned offenses. Accordingly, although defendant may not be innocent in fact, the Connecticut pardon renders him innocent as a matter of law […] and defendant is therefore eligible for expungement.

Expert Advise: “Michigan’s expungement law is open to a narrow range of defendants. This case establishes that defendants who have been pardoned of their convictions may still petition for expungement relief so long as only one Michigan conviction remains.” -Attorney Mathew Higbee.

To read about more cases that help to define record clearing relief laws click here.

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