I have written extensively about the process of restoring a Michigan driver’s license. Because it is so important, I devote a lot of time and space to initial eligibility prerequisites, particularly the requirement that a person be genuinely sober in order to begin a license appeal, or at least have any hope of winning. Most recently, I examined the role substance abuse evaluation in a Michigan driver’s license reinstatement appeal. In this article, I want to take a look at the final step in the license restoration process – the hearing.
Before we get into anything else, I should point out that I fundamentally believe in live hearings. To be clear about it, I do mean live, and in-person. I don’t do video hearings, even though I could, in many cases, and it be a lot more convenient for me. There is nothing, however, that can compare to sitting about 6 feet away from the hearing officer, where he or she can see your facial expressions, watch your body language and even notice if your eyes tear up when you talk about how your drinking damaged the things that matter most in your life. Because I only take cases for people who are really sober (and in exchange, provide a “win” guarantee), I thrive in the knowledge that, above and beyond everything else, we are going in the appeal hearing to tell the truth. Because my clients have genuinely quit drinking, we have nothing to fear from an up-close and personal license appeal hearing. By contrast, the risk that even one small nuance of my client’s truthful testimony could get lost in a grainy, noisy webcam transmission is far too great.
Here’s another important point: I never call witnesses. In fact, I think that calling a witness is an amateur mistake of the highest order. Considering that I GUARANTEE that I will win any license appeal case I take, I must know something. The key to success in a license appeal, like so many important things in life, is preparation. Careful and methodical preparation must be taken in putting the appeal together. We’ll get a rock-solid substance abuse evaluation; that’s why my first appointment with a new client lasts 3 hours and is done before the client has his or her evaluation completed. Next, we’ll produce excellent support letters; I help extensively with that, reviewing and editing and revising everything to make it “just right.” With me handling that, you can focus on just making sure that you’re the person described in the evaluation and portrayed in the letters of support, and you won’t need any witnesses to help with that. At best, a witness is a potential liability. We don’t need or want that…
Instead, it’s the person characterized in the evaluation and letters (meaning you) whose presence is most anticipated at the hearing. How that person will be questioned depends in large part on the hearing officer assigned to hear and decide the case. I have all of my cases heard at the Michigan Secretary of State’s Driver Assessment and Appeal Division (DAAD) hearing office in Livonia. There are 5 hearing officers there, and each has different areas of concerns in a license appeal case. The assignment of the hearing officer deciding your case has a significant effect on exactly how we’ll prepare for it. In a pair of articles I wrote several years ago, I provided a brief description of each hearing officer, identifying them not by name, but rather by a primary attribute that distinguished each from the others. You will need to be prepared for the kind of inquiry you’ll face from whomever will be presiding over your case, and in my mind, preparation the hearing (sound familiar…?) is absolutely critical.
Normally, I do my “preps” the evening before the hearing. I’ll usually call you after-hours, when my office has closed for the day and there are no distractions. The prep session usually lasts between about 45 minutes to an hour, and when we hang up the phone, you will know exactly what to expect. Here, I must hold back a bit on what I say; in the other article from this week, I observed that certain things I do are “proprietary,” and not for open, public discussion. The subtle nuances of how I do things are best reviewed in the confines of the attorney-client relationship. The bottom line is that I do what I do so well that I can guarantee I’ll get you back on the road, and that’s good enough for now.
The actual hearing is not nearly as dramatic as you might expect. Each hearing officer has his or her own hearing room, which looks something like a mini-courtroom. Hearings are scheduled about 10 to 14 days in advance (mark your calendar accordingly) and are set at 9, 10 or 11 am, or 1, 2, 3 or 4 pm. The notice itself indicates the time and then emphasizes it with the word “SHARP!” right next to it, because each case is assigned for its very own time. In other words, if your hearing is set for 10:00 am, it will begin at 10:00 am, and not 10:15, or anything like that. DAAD hearing times are a world apart from court times. Whereas a court case is scheduled for 8:30 am and may not be called until 10 or even 11 am, a 9:00 license appeal will and MUST be done by 10:00 am. In reality, a hearing almost never takes more than 45 minutes, and most of mine are over within about 35 minutes. As it turns out, we’ll spend more time preparing for the hearing than we will actually spend in the hearing.
Once the hearing officer has called the case and we’re seated in his or her room, he or she will usually review the evidence, meaning that each document will be identified on the record (i.e., out loud) and marked as an exhibit. This is done to make sure that the hearing officer has received everything we’ve filed, and also provides an opportunity to hand in any additional evidence at the last minute, like another letter or some other document. Each party is then asked to identify him or herself, and to provide an address and, in some cases, spelling of his or her last name.
Once all of these preliminaries have been completed, you are sworn to testify, and the hearing begins. I start off with the questioning. As I make clear in our prep session, it goes without saying that most people are a bit nervous. Even though everyone I represent has genuinely quit drinking and is honestly sober, and despite the fact that we have comforted and reassured ourselves that everything will be just fine because we are going in to tell the truth, you cannot escape the feeling that “it all comes down to this.” The significance of this moment that is palpable. My job, as the hearing begins, is to help you relax, and get into the flow of things.
We’ll have gone over the questions that I’ll be asking you the night before. However tentative you may be at first, I’ll get you talking, and in no time at all, telling your story will feel and fit like an old, well-worn glove. By the time I conclude with my questions, you’ll be much more at ease, and will be ready to answer the hearing officer’s questions. We’ll have gone over those, as well, so you won’t have to worry about any surprises. Again, the most important part of this is that you’ll be going in to tell the truth. The only people who have to worry about details are people who are going to try and BS their way through a hearing, and that never works. The point of the hearing is to screen that stuff out in the first place.
Once I have finished and hand the floor over to the hearing officer, my focus is directed to the question he or she asks and the answers you provide. If something you say doesn’t come out right, I make a note of it, because when the hearing officer has completed his or her questioning, I have the right to follow up with any additional questions I may have. This means that I am watching out for you – that I have your back. If something needs to be clarified, then I’ll take care of that. You don’t have to sweat that kind of stuff, because that’s what I’m there for.
Beyond just watching out for anything that needs to be corrected (in law, this is called “rehabilitation”), I will make notes of anything that I want to go back and explore, particularly anything positive that can help our case. I may want to re-emphasize something you said to drive home a point. Also, I usually take down several things my client says, word-for-word, so that I can go back and quote him or her to make a strong closing argument. Whatever I’m doing at any given moment, I am following the questions and answers to make sure everything goes just right. This is one less (big) thing for you to worry about.
When all the questioning is done, I make my closing statement. This is basically an argument as to why you should win your case. As much as I can talk or write, at this stage, I don’t waste words. I have to help frame the evidence (the evaluation and letters of support) along with the testimony to show the hearing officer that we have proven, by the required “clear and convincing evidence” standard, that your alcohol (and/or substance abuse) problem is under control and, more importantly, that it is likely to remain under control. It is here that I am at my best. It is at this moment that I combine the best elements of persuasiveness and truthfulness and make a closing statement that is the equivalent of an out-of-the-park home run.
And here again, we get the benefit and comfort of knowing that because we are telling the truth – because we are telling your real life “recovery story,” we don’t really have much to worry about. In roughly about a half-hour, the hearing will conclude, and you will be on your way to slipping a valid license back into your wallet. Unfortunately, the ultimate decision does not happen at the hearing. At the very end of the proceeding, the hearing officer will keep a poker face, not giving anything away, and announce that the record is closed and that he or she will “take the matter under advisement,” and then say something like they’re doing that he or she is going to give him or herself an opportunity to review the evidence and any notes they took before they make a decision.
This is, really, an “in a nutshell” (or “Cliff’s Notes”) description of the typical hearing in a Michigan driver’s license restoration appeal. By the time you show up for the hearing (at least if you’re my client) you’ll have already gone a long way toward winning your case. In an ironic, if not fitting way, this short, roughly half-hour hearing is the final step in what has usually been a journey of many years. By the time you get there, you’ll be ready to get over this last hurdle. As I have said repeatedly throughout this article and in numerous other places, success lies in the preparation, and if we begin with real sobriety, our success is ultimately guaranteed.