Spotlight On: Tiffany Shelton

Please tell us a little about your background and how you came to practice criminal law.

I am originally from Rochester, NY, where I worked as a paralegal in the foreclosure department of a large law firm before moving to Michigan to attend Cooley Law School. Ever since I was a young girl, I wanted to become an attorney. But a personal situation with my father triggered my interest in criminal law. When I was in high school, my father was arrested for allegedly assaulting another individual. My father did not have enough money to hire an attorney, so the court appointed an attorney to represent him. The attorney that was assigned to represent my father hardly ever visited my father while he was incarcerated for nearly 8 months. When my father attempted to explain his claim of self-defense, the court appointed attorney could care less, and instead tried to force my father to accept a plea offer. But my father stood his ground and maintained his innocence – the charges were eventually dropped. Watching my father remain in custody and receive poor representation solidified my determination to become an attorney.

While in law school, I worked for several different attorneys and gained experience in various areas of law. Shortly after taking the bar exam, I started working for the Ingham County Public Defender’s Office and have been there since being admitted to the Michigan State Bar. I am currently one of the public defenders assigned to Judge Stacia Buchanan’s misdemeanor docket, and I am also assigned felony cases. Additionally, I second-chair capital offenses with some of the senior public defenders in the office. 

What do you like about being a public defender?

I like fighting for the underdog and those individuals that cannot afford to hire an attorney. I am motivated to help those who society has largely abandoned and to ensure their rights are protected. I also like being a public defender to combat the negative stigma associated with public defenders/court appointed attorneys. From driving while license suspended to capital offenses, my representation will be the same – zealous!

Tell us about one of your interesting cases. What were the theories of the parties? Were experts involved in the case?

A couple years ago, I was representing an individual charged with operating while intoxicated. The circumstances surrounding the charge are interesting, to say the least. The defendant was apprehended a little over a mile away from the scene of the accident. Officers were dispatched to a residence where the caller indicated there was an individual in her front yard, covered in blood, and the man indicated he was in an accident and did not want law enforcement contacted. Nonetheless, police arrived, arrested my client, and transported him to the hospital to be evaluated. My client sustained multiple abrasions/burns diagonally across his chest from his right shoulder to his lower waist area – this would be consistent with sitting in the passenger seat of a vehicle. A Sparrow nurse advised the injuries to my client’s chest were consistent with seatbelt injuries sustained during a vehicle crash.

The prosecution’s theory was the defendant was operating the motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, crashed his motor vehicle, and then fled the scene. The defense theory was that it was unknown when the crash occurred, the last time my client was inside the vehicle, and what his blood alcohol content was when he was inside the vehicle. The defense position was also that my client was not in the driver’s seat of the motor vehicle, had not been observed (by law enforcement or any other witnesses) operating a motor vehicle, and that he was not involved in a traffic stop in which a police officer smelled a strong odor of intoxicants on his breath.

Prior to trial, I filed a motion to suppress my client’s blood alcohol content based on relevancy, and because the People could not establish that he was operating a motor vehicle. I was scheduled to argue the motion on the morning of trial. The prosecution never filed a response to my motion. Instead, the prosecutor conceded and dismissed the case.  

What significant trends – good or bad – have you noticed in Michigan criminal law since you have been practicing?

There have been significant changes in the expungement and juvenile laws since I started practicing law. 

As of February 19, 2022, first time operating while intoxicated convictions are now eligible to be set-aside (expunged) under certain circumstances. The waiting period to have a first-time operating while intoxicated offense expunged from your record is 5 years. A person convicted of 1 or more misdemeanor or local ordinance marijuana crimes may petition the convicting court to set aside the convictions if they were based on activity that would not have been a crime after December 6, 2018, when a 2018 voter-passed initiative to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Michigan went into effect. A person convicted of 1 or more criminal offenses including felonies and misdemeanors, but not more than a total of 3 felony offenses and an unlimited number of misdemeanors, may file an application with the convicting court to expunge all of his or her convictions, with some exceptions. The “clean slate” law expands eligibility to petition for an expungement in several ways and creates a new process that will automatically seal certain non-violent conviction records if a person has remained conviction-free for a period of time (seven years for misdemeanors, 10 years for felonies).

A pivotal step was made in Michigan for juveniles that went into effect October 1, 2021. Raise the Age (RTA) legislation raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years of age, keeping youth out of adult court. The caveat is the prosecutor’s office still has the discretion to prosecute an individual as an adult for violent offenses. Nonetheless, this new law will ensure that anyone under 18 years old will be treated as a minor in juvenile court and receive the rehabilitation services that are offered in the juvenile justice system to reduce recidivism. 

What changes would you make to the criminal legal system?

I would decriminalize certain laws and reclassify certain misdemeanors as civil infractions. 

I would reduce the number of offenses that can collaterally suspend someone’s driver’s license. Michigan drivers can have their license suspended for a number of reasons that aren’t related to driving, such as failing to show up in court or being convicted of a drug offense.

I would prioritize rehabilitation of offenders, especially juveniles. 

I would alter policies surrounding food assistance programs and voting rights for offenders. Quality of life offenses (prostitution, theft, larceny, etc.) interfere with an individual’s ability to obtain employment. If that same person isn’t able, at a minimum, to feed themselves, then it triggers more offenses. 

I would divert people with mental health needs away from the criminal justice system. There needs to be stronger partnerships among law enforcement and treatment providers. Additionally, law enforcement, dispatch personnel, and jail officers should be required to go through standardized training to de-escalate encounters with people who have mental health and substance abuse needs.

Do you have any advice for other defense attorneys, particularly those who are new to the practice of criminal law?

For those new to the practice of criminal law, do not practice criminal law as a means to an end; practice criminal law because you’re passionate about fighting for those accused of committing a crime. When you’re representing an individual accused of a crime, liberty is always at stake. So, you should not simply practice criminal law for the money. I’ll pass along something one of my law school professors told me, make sure you are kind to your support staff and the court staff – because either one can make your life difficult!

by Kathy Swedlow
CDRC Manager and Editor