The Role of the Substance Abuse Evaluator in Michigan DAAD (DLAD) License Restoration Cases

November 4, 2013

In a very real sense, the foundation of a Michigan driver's license restoration appeal is the substance abuse evaluation. In numerous articles on this blog, as well as in relevant sections of my website, I have written about the various requirements that must be met in order for the substance abuse evaluation to be considered good enough to win. I've also detailed what can go wrong, including what gives rise to, in the words of one of the Michigan Driver Assessment and Appeal Division (DAAD) hearing officers, a "questionable/insufficient substance abuse evaluation." In this article, we'll take a step back from the written evaluation itself, and turn our attention to the person who actually completes the form: the evaluator. Given the significance of the evaluation itself, it should be obvious that the role of evaluator who completes it is at least equally important.

In order to complete a substance abuse evaluation, an evaluator must have and list certain credentials. Nowhere, however, does the Michigan Secretary of State, nor the Driver Assessment and Appeal Division (DAAD) specify anything by way of minimum or required credentials. Despite this curious omission on the state's part, I've never had "credentials" become an issue in any of my cases. That's probably because within my practice as a Michigan driver's license restoration lawyer, I use a few select evaluators, all of whom are active substance abuse counselors with relevant graduate degrees. At least with the evaluators I use, "credentials" to complete a substance abuse evaluation are beyond question.

Therapist 1.2.jpgIf we take a step back and focus on the evaluator, it becomes clear that the underlying recovery philosophy of the evaluator is the thing that matters most in the DAAD substance abuse evaluation process. If there's one point I want to make in this article, its that the school of thought from which an evaluator bases his or her analysis can either make or break an evaluation for a particular client. At its simplest, this means if a person stays sober without AA, but the evaluator is a kind of "AA person," such a pairing will not likely produce a favorable evaluation. This problem can be avoided by using, as I do, an evaluator who employs a holistic approach that incorporates all of the various other schools of thought.

My own leanings in this regard are obvious; my interest in this subject arose in large part because my first legal assistant was a former substance abuse counselor who had a holistic approach to helping people get better. This woman felt equally at home endorsing AA for one person, but not another. Perhaps a bit ahead of her time, her outlook shaped my thirst for understanding and ultimately my return to the University campus where, with an undergraduate degree in psychology and a law degree already under my belt, I returned to the classroom for the formal study of addiction issues at the graduate level. This combined experience and training allows me to so completely manage the license appeal process that I guarantee a win in every Michigan license reinstatement case I file.

It wasn't that long ago that if you worked as a substance abuse counselor, you had probably been schooled in the disease model of alcoholism. AA subscribes to the disease theory. AA was long seen as the closest thing to a "cure" for a drinking problem. And while it is not my intention to be critical of AA, (I actually think it's a wonderful recovery and support system) the program does an enviable job of guarding it's turf, reminding attendees that "rarely has a person failed who has thoroughly followed our path." Regrettably, some hard-liners within the program become dismissive of anyone who manages to remain abstinent without regularly attending meetings, pejoratively calling such a person a "dry drunk."

Add to this the reality that a lot of substance abuse counselors are people who've had their own recovery. This, of course, means they not only intellectually understand what it's like to struggle with a drinking or drug problem, they know this stuff at the gut level. That is a good thing; you can read every book out there about how to ride a bike, for example, but none of that comes close to actually riding one. The same holds true for how many people feel about talking to a counselor alcohol and substance abuse issues. In point of fact, some of the best counselors are not in recovery, any more than the best orthopedic have broken most of their bones.

Currently, as the year 2013 draws to a close, there is a good chance that any counselor enjoying his or her own recovery probably got that start in AA. In other words, AA still holds a dominant, albeit diminishing position in the recovery field, in part because so many people in the recovery field "came up" that way. Newer, more modern (meaning less AA-centric) approaches will take years to diffuse into the field, especially as younger professionals whose recovery was not completely grounded in AA replace the previous generation, much the same way that laser eye surgery was new and expensive and highly specialized 20 years ago; now, you get coupons for it in the mail.

This has a very specific meaning for someone who needs to have a substance abuse evaluation completed in order to file a Michigan license appeal. If you're sobriety is not based on AA, but you go to an evaluator who favors AA, your evaluation won't turn out very well. To put it more directly, you're going to get screwed. This is why I meet with every client for 3 hours before he or she ever sees an evaluator, and also why I send all of my clients to one of a small, carefully selected circle of evaluators. If you go to AA, and your evaluator loves AA, then you've got a good match. If you don't go to AA, however, and your evaluator favors AA, then he or she might just innocently, and with good intentions, suggest, in the "continuum of care" section of your evaluation, that you hit some meetings to reinforce or strengthen your sobriety. If that happens and you file that evaluation with the state, you have just lost your case and any chance of driving for at least the next year.

This explains my preference for the more holistic approach used by the evaluators to whom I refer my clients. If you wind up in one of their offices, and tell them that going to meetings once, or twice, or even three or four times per week helps you stay sober, then they'll validate that as being the way for you to go. However, if you found that AA just wasn't for you, or, after going for a while, you felt that you got what you needed from the program, then they'll be fine with that, and simply recommend that you keep living a "sober lifestyle." Of course, in between those two things are a lot of other methods people employ to stay sober, including past and/or current counseling or therapy, online support, and about as many other approaches to living alcohol-free as there are flavors of ice cream.

In a very real sense, this is a perfect application for the aphorism "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

While I truly think that's the way things should be, in the larger world, that's far from how they really are. This is why knowing the evaluator and his or her beliefs about recovery processes is important, particularly before someone just bumbles in to have a substance abuse evaluation completed. And to be crystal clear about it, if this isn't something that you fundamentally understand, and/or you're lawyer doesn't fundamentally understand, then you're flying blind and just hoping to get lucky. From my perspective (notably, as a lawyer who provides a guaranteed win in every Michigan driver's license restoration appeal he takes), it is the lawyer's job to make the referral to the substance abuse evaluator. Even so, each and every evaluation I file is put under the microscope before it's ever sent off to the state.

The underlying reality is that if you're sitting across the desk from a lawyer who can't clearly articulate why a certain evaluator is likely to be, or not to be, a good match for your particular recovery, then the whole process is flawed from the start. Whatever else, I know that no lawyer in that situation is providing a guaranteed win. The same, of course, holds true for any "do-it-yourself" types trying a license appeal without a lawyer.

In the final analysis, the evaluator is a critically important component of the driver's license restoration process, much like the captain of an airplane is to any flight. It is my job, as the lawyer directing the entire process, to make sure that the client is prepared to meet with the evaluator, and that the evaluator and client don't differ in any important way on recovery philosophy. An oversight or mistake at this stage will render the evaluation unusable. About the only other thing that could be worse than that would be to file such an evaluation with the state, where it will effectively guarantee a loss. Of course, given the right legal guidance, like I provide, this is an entirely avoidable circumstance.