Having a criminal record can impact your life in countless ways, from renting an apartment, to getting a job, to paying insurance. To make matters worse, a criminal conviction does not go away in the state of Maine. Here, the process of sealing your record from the public eye, called expungement, requires a pardon from the governor. This is an uphill battle that is rarely won. Because of the difficulty in sealing a criminal record, and because it's nearly impossible to put a past conviction behind you without sealing it, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has come out in favor of Legislative Document 573, a proposed law that would create a new process for expungement.
However, as clearly shown by recent developments in Michigan, these are not the only reasons why there should be an expungement process that does not rely on the governor's use of executive clemency. Having another process prevents the governor from abusing his pardoning power for political purposes.
A little after midnight on December 21, 2007, Alan Gocha Jr., a powerful attorney for the makers of 5-Hour Energy drinks, was pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence after an officer saw his car straying outside of his lane. He said that he had not been drinking, and refused a breathalyzer, so he was taken to the police station. There, he submitted to a breath test, which showed his blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.11% - over the legal limit. He was arrested and charged with operating under the influence (OUI). Mr. Gocha tried to argue that there was no reason for the officer to pull him over, but the judge disagreed after seeing the police dashboard camera, which showed his car veering over the yellow line. Mr. Gocha pled guilty.
Like Maine, Michigan does not have a separate process for sealing criminal records – convicted criminals have to apply for a governor's pardon. As an attorney, Mr. Gocha was well aware of this, and applied for a pardon in April, 2012, after the mark on his criminal record made traveling internationally for business more difficult. The parole board, responsible for reviewing applications and making recommendations to the state governor, Rick Snyder, didn't find Mr. Gocha's application worthwhile, and it died there, without ever making it to Governor Snyder's desk. This lack of success is, like in many states, typical: Governor Snyder has received roughly 750 applications since taking office, and has issued fewer than a dozen pardons.
Mr. Gocha, however, was not a typical applicant. Mr. Gocha was appointed, by Governor Snyder himself, to the Governor's Talent Investment Board – an unpaid group focusing on job creation in the state. Mr. Gocha was also a leading attorney for a company called Innovation Ventures, the parent corporation for the company that makes 5-Hour Energy drinks, and backs a private equity firm called ETC Capital, which also happens to employ Mr. Gocha. In October 2013, ETC Capital made a $275,000 donation to the Republican Governor's Association who, eight weeks later, made a nearly matching contribution to the Michigan Republican Party, Governor Snyder's party.
Also in 2013, the parole board, in charge of reviewing applications for pardon, encouraged Mr. Gocha to submit another application. He did so.
While the application was making its way through the executive clemency process, ETC Capital donated another $2.5 million to the Republican Governor's Association, who added $3.2 million to governor Snyder's re-election campaign that same day in August, 2014.
After getting the approval of the parole board, Mr. Gocha's OUI conviction was pardoned by Governor Snyder on March 27, 2015.
The sordid events in Michigan show the importance of removing the expungement process from the political realm, where it can be used and abused by insiders, while remaining only a long shot for people who can benefit from it so much more. Maine needs a fair and equitable expungement system and Legislative Document 573 addresses these issues. Hopefully, it will pass.