The decision on whether to defend against a criminal charge—that is, to fight it rather than simply pleading guilty—is usually based upon some form of a “cost-benefit” analysis: do the costs of a trial outweigh the benefits of pleading to a lower charge? Certainly this is a necessary part of the decision-making process. Too often, however, people charged with a crime overlook critical factors—such as the relative strength or weakness of the prosecution’s case—and consider only the financial question: “Will it cost me more money to fight this case than I will pay in fines if I plead guilty?” Especially in the case of misdemeanor crimes—where the maximum fine may only be a few hundred dollars—people often make the simple calculation that “a $500.00 fine is less than a $1,000.00 attorney bill, so the plea is less expensive.” Unfortunately, the analysis is really not that simple. Not only does it overlook the court costs and fees impose in addition to the fines, it also overlooks long-term consequences that may cost thousands of dollars.There are more costs than just the fine.
While a trial may cost thousands of dollars, it is crucial to understand that the consequences that come with a conviction include more than just the fines, and may cost far more than a trial would. In addition to the set fines for a crime, there are also court costs, the cost of prosecution, probation oversight fees, crime-victim rights fees, and many others. These fees alone can exceed any attorney fees.
Probation oversight fees charged when a person is placed on probation rather than going to jail are imposed for every month that a person is on probation. This can range anywhere from $10.00 to $135.00 per month. That means that if you are on probation for a year, even at the minimum amount, you could be paying an extra $120.00 on top of the fines already imposed.
Some convictions—even convictions not related to driving—may result in additional driver responsibility fees. Driver responsibility fees are charges that are imposed in addition to fines that must be paid once a year for two years. If you miss a payment, your license could be suspended. These fees can range from $150 -$1000 per year for 2 years. Although the law was recently amended to change or eliminate some of these fees starting in October 2012, these fees remain in effect for many kinds of convictions.
Long-term Effects on Personal Freedoms
WHAT IF I ALREADY HAVE A CONVICTION?
If you have a conviction, you may be able to have your record expunged and your rights reinstated. Michigan’s criminal conviction expungement law, MCL 780.621, allows for certain criminal convictions to be removed from your record. There are limits, however: you can only have one conviction of any kind (with certain exceptions), it does not apply to convictions for life offenses or most sexual crimes or traffic offense, and at least five years must have passed since your sentence was completed. Other limitations also apply. The process is somewhat complex and time-consuming, and is not always successful. If you have a conviction and need to get it set aside, you should contact an attorney. Of course, the best way to avoid the negative impact of a conviction is to avoid one altogether.
There are many consequences associated with even minor misdemeanor convictions, and these can have life-long costs. They can affect your ability to make a living and do many of the things that you enjoy doing. For instance, a conviction for some relatively minor crimes can result in a life-long ban on travel into Canada; the Canadian government will not let you into the country. Canada weighs a conviction in the US against that country’s own legal statutes. For example, a drunk driving conviction can easily bar you from entry. And while a misdemeanor here may be minor, in Canada it could be a more serious crime. Canada requires that all persons with convictions apply for rehabilitation before entry. Once you complete the requirements for this rehabilitation, you have to apply for the certificate, which could cost anywhere from $200.00 to over $1,000.00. While some people go to Canada for the entertainment, others work there and cannot afford to be banned from that country, and may not be able to afford the requirements to get back in.
Your right to possess a gun may also be impaired. In Michigan, the majority of felony convictions will also prohibit you from ever having a firearm of any kind; merely holding the gun can result in a prison sentence. Even if Michigan restores your right to carry firearms, you will still be barred from possessing a gun under federal law. Some misdemeanors also impose this restriction even when they do not necessarily involve a weapon. For instance, a domestic violence conviction results in a permanent ban from possessing a gun … even if it was a first offense, did not involve a weapon, and did not involve an injury. Even assaults charged as something other than “domestic violence” can result in these consequences under certain conditions.
Other personal freedoms are also affected when you have a criminal conviction. You could be denied the ability to serve in the military, run for office, or serve on a jury. There are some convictions that could even take away your right to vote.
Housing, Public Assistance, Education, and Employment
A criminal conviction can also affect many other things. One consequence is housing. A private landlord or subsidized housing provider can evict you, or even refuse to rent to you based on your record. Private landlords can refuse to rent if there is something on your record that would lead them to believe you would not make a good tenant. They can also evict you if they found out that you lied on your application, committed a new crime, or if you or a guest were involved in illegal drug activity. They can also refuse to renew your lease. When it comes to subsidized housing, there are federal guidelines that state a provider can (and may even be required to) deny you admission or evict you if you have a criminal conviction on your record. You may even be evicted for committing a new crime after you were already admitted.
Other forms of public assistance can also be affected. Drug-related felony convictions are an automatic permanent bar from receiving food and cash assistance for life. Michigan opted out of this lifetime ban in 2006, but bills are frequently introduced that would limit the benefits a person with felony drug convictions can receive. Currently there are 17 states that have the full ban in place, 21 who have modified the ban, and 11 who have opted out entirely. Also, if you are a fleeing felon or have violated probation or parole, you cannot receive SSI, food stamps, and other benefits.
Student loans are controlled by the government. If you are convicted of any offense under any federal or state law involving the possession or sale of a controlled substance while receiving student aid, then your eligibility is automatically suspended. The amount of time it is suspended varies on the offense. You may regain your eligibility for the loans depending on the conviction, but the process is difficult and time-consuming.
Employment can obviously be affected. No only are employers less likely to hire someone with a criminal record, you may be prohibited from holding certain types of jobs with a criminal conviction. For people who must be licensed—including child care workers, people in health care, and people working in criminal justice—a criminal conviction may prevent you from holding a license necessary to even seek employment. You can and probably will lose your existing job.
If you are not a United States citizen, there are extra concerns. Depending on your immigration status, age, and other factors, you could be deported for a criminal conviction. Even if you have a green card, crimes like drug or gun offenses, fraud, money laundering, domestic violence, stalking, child abuse, murder, rape, burglary and a few others could be cause for deportation.
A criminal conviction can have a tremendous effect on child support and custody. Parental rights can be terminated as a result of a criminal conviction. If your child ends up in foster care because of your conviction, a clock starts counting down to a termination of parental rights.
Sex Offender Registration
Certain conviction may also require you to become a registered sex offender, and have your name included on the public sex offender registry. The sex offender registry is, in essence, a 21st century version of the “scarlet letter.” Although intended as a “safety measure,” the reality is that the practical effect of the sex offender registry is to ostracize people—even after they have “done their time”—and simply make life difficult. Convictions for relatively minor misdemeanors (including “indecent exposure” and “disorderly person”) may result in mandatory inclusion on the sex offender registry. Convictions for most felonies involving any kind of sexual contact or activity also require registration. If you are required to be on the sex-offender registry, there are strict rules you must follow. For instance, you cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school, and you need to register every time you move. If you forget, or just don’t register, you could be charged with failing to register: another crime altogether with its own consequences. Being a registered sex-offender can affect you for the rest of your life, limiting where you can live, where you can work, even where you can go.
The Bottom Line
If you are ever in a position where you have to decide to either go to trial or take a conviction, remember that even if a trial costs $1,000.00, $3,000.00, or even $10,000.00, a conviction could cost many times that, even if maximum fine is only $500.00. There is more to a conviction than merely the fine, and the additional consequences need to be included in any analysis of whether to plead guilty or go to trial. Of course, there are ways to resolve a case without a trial: there may be diversionary programs that avoid a conviction, or an attorney may be able to negotiate a plea to a charge that carries fewer consequences. This may be the best possible outcome in your case. Sometimes, however, the best decision is to go to trial … and it is important to base that decision on more than a comparison between what your attorney will charge you and the maximum fine.
Steven Shelton is an attorney licensed in Michigan. Although his private practice is based in Fenton, Michigan, he handles criminal defense and general civil litigation cases statewide. You may contact him via telephone at 810-750-1420 or through this website.