College Students Beware: Pitfalls of a MIP Charge

Like many students at Michigan State University, you have just received a MIP ticket. (Minor in Possession of Alcohol). Anecdotally, it is this author's belief that vast numbers of underage drinkers receive at least one MIP citation from either the East Lansing Police Department or the Michigan State University Police Department during their tenure at Michigan State University. Your first question might be whether you should tell your parents about the ticket or to try and resolve it on your own. Many students appear in court, and do what seems easiest, namely pay the ticket, avoid probation, classes and/or breath testing, and believe they can happily go on their way. What they may not realize is simply paying the first ticket and avoiding classes/probation will net them a criminal conviction. This is something that will be on your criminal record for at least five years. It will also appear on your driving record with the Michigan Secretary of State, although no motor vehicle may have been involved with the arrest and/or charge. Your family's insurance company may see this and decide to increase your family's insurance rates because of the notion that minors who drink alcohol are more likely to drink and drive, and thus, pose a greater insurance risk. Every time you apply for either graduate school or a job, either while in college or after college, you will be asked whether you have a criminal conviction. You are required to say "yes". If you fail to do so, get the job and receive a pay check, you are in danger of being charged with criminal fraud, a felony offense. Although Minor in Possession carries no possible jail time as part of one's initial sentencing and, by comparison to other criminal charges, may seem relatively insignificant, as above noted, it can have lasting consequences, and perhaps more significantly, your parents will find out.

Most students and families agree that appropriate measures be taken to assure that a MIP ticket does not result in a criminal record. Fortunately, for many first offenders, Michigan Law provides the court with a vehicle that allows first offenders to avoid a conviction through an optional diversion/deferral program, which requires the offender to plead guilty to the offense, and typically be placed on probation, usually running approximately 90 days. In East Lansing, first offenders are typically required to take a course either online or in person about drinking as minors. The course includes both physical and potentially legal risks associated with drinking. Often the court requires daily breath testing for up to 45 days, and there is an increase in fines and costs in connection with the diversion program that typically exceeds the fines and costs if one were simply to plead guilty to the first offense with a conviction. The benefit of the program, of course, is that there is no conviction if one successfully completes the 90 day program. If one does not, the court has the option of revoking the diversion/deferral status, and entering a formal conviction on the individual's record. Some courts, although arguably it is not allowed by law, consider a failure to complete probation, contempt of court and may incarcerate a defendant. Otherwise, the court could change the terms of the defendant's probation while maintaining their status and allowing the record to be devoid of a conviction. Some courts, in connection with its diversion/deferral program, may order the defendant to undergo a substance abuse assessment to determine the gravity of any substance abuse issues involved, and may order substance abuse counseling and rehabilitation. The court may also require the defendant to perform community service. Interestingly, there are a number of judges in the state of Michigan that never grant a MIP first offender diversion/deferral status, and thus, necessarily require first offenders to have a criminal record, in addition to requiring them to undergo extensive probationary involvement. Grand Valley State University students who may drink in Ottawa County, as well as students at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, among others, should beware of their local courts.

It is helpful to consult an attorney in these cases to explore your options. On campus and/or East Lansing MIP charges can often result in dramatically different results. Cases brought by the East Lansing Police Department to the East Lansing City Attorney's Office can offer more options to students wishing to avoid a MIP conviction, although these options can sometimes be costly. MIP offenses committed on campus are prosecuted by the Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, which generally is less interested in finding creative solutions and often insists that either the offender plead guilty as charged or participate in the Court's diversion program. On its face, this may not seem problematic inasmuch as the first offender may walk away without a conviction after completing the probationary requirements. What is difficult, however, is that students, and sometimes parents, do not fully appreciate that young people who are caught once will not necessarily curtail their drinking habits, and thus, will remain at risk for one or more additional offenses. Second and/or third offenders, who have previously used up their diversion status which is available only once in a lifetime, will necessarily receive a criminal record for their "second" offense. Again, assessment, treatment, drug testing, and community service remain options as part of one's sentencing. The Secretary of State will now have a public record that will be passed on to the family's insurance company. A second conviction brings a mandatory license suspension. A third conviction brings all the above, with a more lengthy driver's license suspension.

Our office is often able to have cases dismissed, when the initial interaction between the student and the police results from an unlawful stop or an unlawfully administered preliminary breath test. Even when defenses are unavailable, our office has been very successful in avoiding the one time only use of the diversion program, by seeking other alternatives as a vehicle for resolving these cases amicably with either the County Prosecutor or the East Lansing City Attorney's Office. Sometimes, this involves our client's commitment to a substance abuse assessment and/or treatment, prophylactic online classes, community service, etc. Quite often this involves paying significant sums for fines and costs for civil infractions that are not criminal and not reportable to the Secretary of State. The upshot of this is that the student keeps the Minor in Possession diversion program in reserve in the event of another offense. We are often able to give students a second or third bite of the apple before they find themselves convicted of a criminal offense.

If you are convicted, there may be hope on the horizon. Michigan law allows the court to exercise its discretion, and potentially expunge or erase convictions of those charged with minor misdemeanors, typically Minor in Possession charges, if there are not more than two or three of them. However, a defendant must wait at least five years after being sentenced to seek an expungement. If the MIP tickets were obtained from different courts, the minor, now adult, must appear in each separate court to request an expungement of their criminal record. The courts are not required to grant an expungement, but may do so if the young person's life has changed dramatically during the five year hiatus. Unfortunately, of course, during the five years, the student will be required to report all of his/her convictions to potential employers or graduate programs. Jobs, given the nature of our economy, may be hard to come by and are very competitive. Employers may not wish to take a chance on someone who "may" have a drinking or substance abuse issue.

So, our best advice to students is to alert your parents immediately if you receive a MIP citation. Parents should consider hiring an attorney and taking proactive steps so that your student can avoid a criminal record.