Crowded expungement clinic helps locals hide criminal records
ALPENA — People who once brushed up against the law stood under sap-laden trees in an alley on Friday afternoon, hoping to get their lives back.
A crowd of 100 people or more showed up for an Alpena expungement clinic, hosted by the Bay View Center and sponsored in part by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, to get free help hiding old criminal records from prospective employers and landlords.
In dress shoes and flip-flops, fishing hats and ball caps, people waited their turn in an alley outside the building, hoping the attorneys inside would have time to help them lift burdens they’d been carrying for years.
Long-ago crimes and violations stand in the way of securing a home or a job, said Michael Swider, who arrived early to try to get help expunging his three drunk driving convictions.
Like many people with criminal records, he said, he works in construction, held back from advancement in that career because of his record and unable to use his qualifications for other, higher-paying jobs.
“I understand the penalties of what I did,” said Swider, who has gone more than a decade without getting into trouble again. “But we’ve paid our dues.”
Waiting in the alley with Swider, Andrew Hornak, of Ossineke, said he thought he’d never be able to apply to expunge his three felony convictions from a different time in his life.
Recent changes in Michigan laws mean he might be eligible for expungement, a process Hornak hopes will earn him the right to own a gun, live where he wants, and get a good job.
“This is going to push Alpena forward,” giving employers hungry for workers a better shot at being able to hire qualified and eager employees, Swider said.
The Attorney General’s Office has previously facilitated expungement clinics elsewhere across the state. Attorney General Dana Nessel, during a visit to Alpena earlier this year, promised to use her resources to make a clinic happen in Alpena.
Nessel was present for the first part of Friday afternoon’s clinic, speaking with members of the crowd in the alley.
Had she known more help was needed, she would have brought a team of attorneys to Alpena, Nessel said.
Inside the Bay View Center, four Alpena attorneys sat at tables, walking attendees through the paperwork needed to apply for expungement.
Before they could reach the attorneys, attendees had their name run through a background check to see if they qualified under the state’s new expungement guidelines.
Those who qualified received free legal help, then were fingerprinted and received papers to mail for final processing by the state.
Outside, Kelly Wellman, of Alpena, hoped the attorneys could help her get out from under a long-ago violation, “So, when my kids have grandkids, I can watch them,” she said.
As people trickled into the building and more arrived in the alley, Swider and Hornak envisioned life with their driver’s licenses back — no more asking for rides and paying for cabs — and without having their cars searched every time they get pulled over for a traffic violation because of the long-ago crimes that show up on their record.
If necessary, Hornak would have quit his job to be able to be at the expungement fair for a shot at a changed life, he said.
“I was geeked when my dad told me about it,” Swider said. “I have waited way too long.”
A small crowd gathered around Lynsey Barden, of Alpena, as she emerged from the building, paperwork in hand.
Eagerly, they asked her how it went.
The process had been easy, she said, displaying a card of fingerprints she will mail to the proper address, along with $50 — far less than the thousands she anticipated having to pay if she had to hire an attorney or figure it out herself, she said.
After 12 years under the thumb of her record, the clinic gave her hope of “new beginnings,” Barden said with a grin.
In the middle of the crowd, Nessel promised her office will make sure another expungement clinic reaches Alpena soon, this time with more attorneys.
She urged those who don’t get help to not get discouraged.
“We’ll be back,” she said. “And we’ll give as much help to folks who live in Alpena and the surrounding counties as we can.”
Her office has hired staff specifically to handle the multitudes of expungement applications flowing in from across the state, she said.
Some people, especially those with only one or a few low-level misdemeanors, could probably navigate their own expungement process online, starting with a link available through the state’s website, she said.
Hours after the event began, Swider and Hornak — along with a diminished but still sizable crowd — leaned wearily against a wall in the alley, still waiting.
For those who get help, and get out from under their records, “All your aspects and doors of life can open up,” Hornak said.
For information about expungement, including a link to an Application to Set Aside Conviction form, visit michigan.gov/ag/initiatives/expungement-assistance.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.