WMU-Cooley Law School's Access to Justice Clinic celebrates 50th expungement case with a reception

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WMU-Cooley Law School’s Access to Justice Clinic has helped Michigan residents clear their criminal records for the past three years. This summer, the school celebrated its 50th expungement victory.
“Having convictions on your record can pose significant barriers to various aspects of your life,” said law student Molly Mahoney. “A criminal record can stand in the way of getting a job, obtaining housing, getting certain licenses, furthering education and attaining financial stability.”

This was the case for Michelle Briggs, who began a one-year probation sentence for a felonious assault charge in 1989. Ten months into the probation, the charge against herwas dismissed and she was free to live her life without legal system controls – or so she thought.

Despite having worked for 14 years at Steelcase’s file plant,  Briggs grappled with roadblocks due to her single felony citation. She lost out on housing and certain employment opportunities after being laid off  at Steelcase. “That charge has been a ball and chain around my ankles for 29 years,” said Briggs, now 50. “I still had felonious assault on my record.”

Briggs put herself through college, receiving associate’s degrees in juvenile services and in corrections. She lost her mother on the eve of graduating from Ferris State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

“It’s been really hard,” Briggs said. “Even after graduating college and having a degree and life experience, I wasn’t able to obtain employment and provide for my family and be self-sufficient the way I desired.”

With the help of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) in Grand Rapids and WMU-Cooley’s Access to Justice Clinic, Briggs’ quest for freedom began. She received employment and economical support from WRC, while WMU-Cooley’s clinic helped get her felonious assault charge expunged.

Throughout the expungement process, Briggs was unsure if she was able to afford court-related costs and fees. She often had to choose between paying the electric bill, gas for her car or putting food on the table for her and her children, and putting money toward her expungement. Despite working two jobs as a support staff coordinator at the YWCA and as a residential adviser at Alternative Directions in Grand Rapids, Briggs filed for bankruptcy. But her support team from the Access to Justice Clinic and WRC never gave up hope. “I can’t thank them enough,” Briggs said.. “They really worked hard and I appreciate them for persevering along with me, giving me respect and fighting for me. Through every step in the process, they were honest and kept me involved. They believed in me and made me feel like I mattered. That made me want to fight to get my life back.”

This April, Briggs stood before a Kent County judge during her expungement hearing. The judge began discussing the case in front of Briggs, sharing details of what he had learned about Briggs at the time of her conviction and who she is now 29 years later. The judge’s compliments about what Briggs has accomplished in nearly three decades brought her to tears.

“I felt like he actually cared,” Briggs said. “He told me that he was proud of me and wanted me to continue on doing what I’m doing in life.”

With the stroke of his pen, the judge declared Briggs an exoneree.“I felt light as a feather. I was so overwhelmed with joy,” she said. “I can now pursue anything in life. I can travel, I can apply for a passport, employment and housing and not have my application be shredded, turned down or dismissed because of that conviction. I’m free.”

The Clinic celebrated Briggs’ freedom, and commemorated its 50th expungement case victory with a reception on July 19, at the Grand Rapids campus.

“The Access to Justice Clinic staff is thrilled to have the privilege of helping people move beyond their past and live their best life,” said WMU-Cooley Assistant Dean and Professor Tracey Brame, who started the Access to Justice Clinic in 2006. “Ms. Briggs is a shining example of what can happen when we give people a second chance. She did not let her past mistakes define her, and has proven an inspiration to many.”

Briggs is grateful for the judge taking time to thoroughly review her case and familiarizing himself with her accomplishments and commitments.

“I want to thank him for picking up that document, reading it and giving me another chance – another opportunity – to allow me to continue doing the work that I’m passionate about in life, and that is helping others.”

Briggs plans to make time for her final semester of graduate school for a master’s degree in criminal justice.

To others who may be in simlar shoes  Briggs offered the following advice: “Never give up, never give up. Just follow your heart and persevere.”

To those at WMU-Cooley’s clinic and the WRC, Briggs said, “Keep doing what you’re doing. There are people out here in this world who need your services. Thank you for giving me peace, joy and my life back.”

 

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