Driving on a Suspended (DWLS) or Revoked (DWLR) License in Michigan

February 27, 2012

As a Criminal Defense Lawyer whose Practice concentrates rather heavily on Driving-related matters, including DUI's, Driver's License Restorations and Suspended License Offenses, I have seen firsthand how an unfortunate choice or two can impact a person's life. This article will focus on the impact, both immediate and long-term, when a person winds up getting caught Driving on a Suspended License (DWLS), or Driving with a Revoked License (DWLR). It will be based upon my experience in those localities to which I limited Practice, meaning all of Macomb and Oakland Counties, and parts of Wayne County.

At first glance, Driving While License Suspended seems like a less serious charge than Driving While License Revoked. After all, a person's License can be Suspended for all kinds of reasons: Chief amongst them are unpaid Tickets, failure to show up in Court, and a DUI or a Drug case. A person's License is usually Revoked, however, for multiple DUI's, or really serious things. It often surprises people to learn that Driving on a Suspended License and Driving While License Revoked violate the very same rule of Law. As a result, the potential punishment for each is identical. Legally speaking, DWLS and DWLR are identical. In fact, in many jurisdictions, the Police will quite correctly write up the Offense as DWLS/DWLR.

DLGreen copy2.1.jpgBeyond all this legal finery, however, lies a subject that turns out to be a little deeper than it at first seems.

Of course, it's pretty safe to say that no one who gets Arrested on a Suspended or Revoked License charge ever really thought it would really happen, or, in the case of those with prior such Offenses, happen again. Everyone who gets behind the wheel and knows their License is not valid knows they're taking a risk, but figures that they'll be extra careful and will get by unnoticed. Then something happens, a Police car gets behind them with lights flashing, and they immediately get that sinking feeling in their stomach.

Over the span of my career, I have heard every reason you can imagine for why a person was driving. Most often, it centers around work. Obviously, if a person is caught driving without a License, a better reason seems to make it more "excusable." No one would say something like "I didn't have a ride to the bar, so I figured I'd drive myself." Instead, "I didn't have a ride to work, and I couldn't find one" seems to make a lot more sense.

And to a large extent, it does.

I have noted in many of my various DUI articles that how well or poorly any case turns out that won't otherwise get dismissed or "knocked out" due to some technical has a lot to do with geography. In other words, a DWLS case in the Macomb County cities of Roseville, New Baltimore or Shelby Township, or the Wayne County cities of Canton, Livonia or Westland will result in a much more lenient Sentence than one in the Oakland County cities of Rochester Hills, Bloomfield Hills or Troy.

If the reader has made any inquiry so far, he or she has already likely learned that almost every Court in Oakland County is tougher than almost every Court in either Wayne or Macomb Counties. And if this is the first place you've heard that, then you won't be surprised when your further inquiry confirms that.

There is really nothing a person can do about where such a case is pending. Telling someone who has already been cited for a DWLS or DWLR charge to NOT drive in Oakland County is like trying to un-spill milk; it's too late.

Yet there is a lot that can and should be done to minimize all the many consequences that these charges bring, no matter where they occur.

Obviously, any and everyone facing a DWLS/DWLR charge wants to stay out of Jail. Some people don't really think beyond that; they are so terrified of getting locked up that if they can be assured they won't be, they'll feel like they won the lottery.

In addition, both Suspended and Revoked License convictions trigger what are called "Mandatory Additionals." These are additional Suspensions or Revocations that are tacked on to the current Suspension or Revocation a person is facing in the first place. These "Mandatory Additionals" can really add up, and a person can find himself or herself not legally eligible to drive for a long time. And if the person gets caught driving again, without a valid License, this begins to really ratchet up the consequences. A person can usually get away with a few Suspended or Revoked License cases and stay out of Jail. There comes a point, however, where any Judge's patience is stretched to the limit; for some it's much earlier, for others, one might think they have, as my late mom used to say, "the patience of a saint," but past that certain point, when Fines and Costs and warnings and Mandatory Additionals have clearly not been enough to keep a person without a License from getting behind the wheel, Jail becomes the only option.

Yet for a Lawyer like me, keeping my Client out of Jail is almost always rather easy, at least when the Client doesn't have a boatload of recent DWLS/DWLR charges. Beyond that, I am concerned with how this incident will affect my Client months and years down the road. I want to make sure my Client is able to get their License back as soon as possible. Simply sharing in their joy at not being sent to Jail and shaking hands goodbye on the Courthouse steps is selling them short; a Lawyer has an obligation to look out for interests the Client may not even know he or she has.

It is important to consider the reason for a person's Suspension or Revocation in the first place. If a person is caught driving on a License that was merely Suspended because of an unpaid Ticket, things will be much better than if they were caught driving on a License that was Revoked for multiple DUI's, and has a number of "Mandatory Additionals."

And this reality throws a wrench into the fact that, as I noted above, both DWLS and DWLR violate the very same Law, and are subject to the same Criminal punishment.

There is simply no one in the whole Criminal Justice or Court system, from Police Officer to Prosecutor to Judge, who will not consider someone caught driving with a License that was Revoked for getting multiple DUI's more "dangerous" than someone whose License was Suspended merely because they forgot to pay a Traffic Ticket. There is a good reason for this.

While leaving a Ticket unpaid (or at least failing to hire a Lawyer and fighting the Ticket in Court, where avoiding all or most of the points is quite likely) is not exactly a shining example of personal responsibility, getting caught driving drunk multiple times, then having the Driver's License first Suspended, and then subsequently Revoked, and thereafter being informed that they cannot drive at all, under any circumstances, ever, until their License has formally been Restored after a Secretary of State Hearing, which cannot be had for at least a year or more down the road, only to get caught Driving anyway is rather like flipping the middle finger to everyone and saying "screw this, I'll damn well do what I want no matter what the Law says."

Anyone who has had a prior Revoked License charge knows that, even in a 1st Offense case, it is serious business. In that sense, a 1st Offense Suspended License charge is like playing Little League baseball. A 1st Offense Revoked License charge is like playing in the Minor League, and a 2nd or Subsequent Revoked License charge is like stepping up to the plate in the Major Leagues.

Legally speaking, these charges are not often "knocked out." Think about it for a moment; how can they be? Unless the Defense Lawyer can challenge the Traffic Stop and have it declared unlawful there is really little Defense to one of these charges. Sure, every once in a while, the Secretary of State makes a mistake, or perhaps a person DID pay an overdue Ticket and receive a "clearance" that somehow did NOT make it into the system by the time they were pulled over a day or two later, but those kinds of cases are rare.

Instead, people often realize that there was a Ticket from a while ago that they meant to pay...but didn't. I've seen cases where an employer has agreed to take care of a Ticket for an employee, and the employee handed it over, only to find out, much later, that it was never paid.

All this means that a Defense Lawyer taking on one of these cases needs to be a very skilled negotiator. He or she needs, really, to be a kind of diplomat of the first order. Instead of Legal arguments made to the Prosecutor in order to convince him or her to reduce the charges or back off on the Sentence, the Lawyer defending a DWLS or DWLR Driver needs to persuade the Prosecutor to give them a break. This is easier said than done, and certainly easier in some cases than in others. A person caught driving on a Suspended License at 7:45 am after taking the kids to school, or on their way to work is going to be an easier mark for a "break" than someone who has had their License Revoked for a few DUI's and who is caught driving home, at about 11:00 pm, and even though they may not have had a sip of alcohol, from a Red Wings game.

It is that ability to be charismatic and persuasive, and that ability to communicate exceptionally well that really defines the skill of the Lawyer anyone should look for in such a case. In other words, Mr. Longhair, wrinkly, sloppy-suit Lawyer who happens to be great at winning Murder Trials may be the exact WRONG guy to handle one of these charges because his skill lies outside of working things out with a Prosecutor. While I mean no offense to the Inuit peoples, the kind of Lawyer needed in a DWLS or DWLR case is someone who, on a bad day, could sell an air conditioner to an Eskimo, and, on a good day, could sell him a second one for back up. Honestly, I think it is pretty easy, withing a matter of seconds, to identify a Lawyer who has the "gift of gab," or what some people call a "silver tongue," from those who talk just like everybody else. Certainly, if I am in need of a Surgeon, I want someone whose dexterity and fine motor skills are well above that of the average person. A Lawyer that doesn't impress a potential, inquiring Client right out of the gate is unlikely to be seen as very charismatic or persuasive by anyone else, either, and that's not good.

It is important in every DWLS/DWLR case for the Defense Lawyer to work out a Plea Bargain to completely avoid, or at least, in tough cases, minimize the impact of any charge to a person's Record. Remember, we want to avoid any "Mandatory Additionals," and Driver Responsibility Fees, and make sure the Client can reinstate their License as soon as possible, or avoid having it yanked for the present Offense even if they've already had it reinstated.

Any DWLS/DWLR conviction will trigger a hefty Driver Responsibility Fee. Working out a deal that will avoid a conviction for a Suspended or Revoked License charge to avoid my Client having to pay that is an important consideration. This is one of those long-term considerations that must be borne in mind early, while the case is still pending. Otherwise, what might have seemed like a good "deal" at the time will turn out to be an expensive oversight down the road. Getting out of these Fees isn't always possible, but it is a heck of lot better to attempt a resolution that avoids them than just ignore them altogether, only to find out, months later, that they could have been avoided, or at least cut in half.

Beyond that, where Jail looms as any kind of realistic possibility, persuading the Prosecutor to go along with a deal that avoids that is the first order of business. No one wants to get locked up, and, if getting locked up is a real possibility, then NOT getting locked up is the first thing for which you hire and pay a Lawyer.

Thus, avoiding Jail where it is likely, or, a noted above, realistically possible, is a Defense Lawyer's first obligation. Once staying out of Jail has been accomplished or assured, then avoiding an outcome that will result in additional Suspensions or Revocations becomes the next priority. After that, minimizing expenses, and keeping the Client off of any kind of "Probation from Hell," with too many conditions is next.

When all is said and done, the reality is that a person hiring a Lawyer for a DWLS or DWLR case needs to be sure that their Lawyer really understands both the short term and long terms potential consequences of the charge, as well as any possible Plea deal they negotiate, and will make sure that the very best, most lenient (meaning least amount of consequences) result is produced. If so, then the Client will almost always walk out the front door of the Courthouse with their Lawyer, and should even have a few bucks left in their pocket as they do.