If you have been arrested for a 1st offense OWI (Operating While Intoxicated) charge in any Oakland County city or township, you’ve probably already heard that things are “tougher” there than in neighboring Macomb or Wayne Counties. In this article I want to go beyond just repeating this statement in order to learn why it certainly feels this way if you are the person facing a DUI charge. There are a lot of municipalities in Oakland County, but all DUI charges will be processed through the local courts in either Rochester Hills, Troy, Royal Oak, Novi, Madison Heights, Farmington Hills, Waterford, Oak Park, Southfield, Bloomfield Hills, Pontiac, Ferndale, Berkley, Clarkston, Hazel Park and Plymouth (Plymouth/Canton). The differences amongst these courts and the Judges within them is too vast to even summarize in an article, so we’ll focus instead on the similarities that make Oakland County, like each of the other 2 counties that make up our Tri-County area unique.
Let’s start off with a bit of good news: No matter how horrible things may feel or seem right now, they probably aren’t nearly as bad as you fear. When it’s said that the courts of Oakland County are “tougher,” that really has nothing to do with jail. The sole and well-documented exception to this is one Judge in Bloomfield Hills’ 48th district court who usually (but not always) requires even first time offenders to do a bit of jail time. Her practice has garnered national attention precisely because it stands out in such stark contrast to the fact that jail is just not on the menu in all other 1st offense drinking and driving cases, and this applies everywhere, not just Michigan. Beyond easing your worst fears, this should help you look past the sales pitch of those lawyers whose marketing technique is to “avoid jail” in a 1st offense DUI, because that’s not going to happen anyway. We begin then, with the general proposition that you’re not going to jail.
How, then, do Oakland County courts get a reputation for being so tough if they don’t lock people up? The answer lies in what can be described their “progressive” approach that is really a preview of how things will be done by other courts later in time. In this case, “progressive” winds up meaning “protective,” which in turn equates things like counseling, education, treatment and testing, as in urine or breath testing. A number of years ago, the whole concept of alcohol testing as a condition of bond (release) was unheard of. The very first local court to adopt it, not surprisingly, was in Oakland County. While the idea didn’t catch on there like wildfire, the practice steadily grew and became the norm throughout most of Oakland County before it ever found its way into either Macomb or Wayne Counties. With time, first one Macomb County court, then another, and thereafter still more began to require anyone facing a DUI charge, including a first offense, to test for alcohol while out on bond. By this time, the practice was ubiquitous in Oakland County, and more common than not in Macomb, as well; Wayne would soon follow suit. What does “progressive” mean, and how will it affect your DUI?
The first difficulty here lies in agreeing upon a definition of “progressive.” It should not come a surprise that the public sentiment has grown against drunk driving over the last 20 years. MADD has raised public consciousness about the dangers of drinking and driving. There is no one out there trying to make the case that DUI’s are a good thing, or that we need to be easier on those arrested for drinking and driving. Quite the opposite, driving over the limit has become an easy target for every elected official to get some press by trying to be “tougher.” Most regrettably, we don’t have to wait too long between tragedies involving a DUI fatality to show up on the news and fuel this movement. If the goal of being progressive is to make progress in reducing the number of DUI offenses, and to reduce the rate of recidivism, then, despite our efforts, all of the “get tough” stuff has failed miserably. Even so, that won’t stop any elected official from hopping on the bandwagon, so it seems like there is always some new legislation to “crack down” on drunk driving.
I’m not about to dip into politics here, but it is pretty common knowledge that the test scores of American students is nowhere near the top of the world rankings. For decades we have literally poured money into education, increasing the funding per student dramatically, but all we’ve gotten for this is falling test scores. My point is that money alone, which has been the approach that eats up more of your tax dollars, has not worked, and it will not work, but don’t expect any politicians to stand up and say something intelligent, like maybe parents ought to get more involved in their children’s educations; that can only anger voters. Instead, they’ll stand up and demand more money for education, which appeals to popular sentiment.
Popular sentiment is an important ingredient is this stew we call “progressive.” Another one is this notion of “talking” about things; talk through them, talk about them, or just plain talk them to death. It’s not coincidence that we live in a world dominated by “talk therapy.” In the old days, a Judge would put someone on probation for a DUI and make perfectly clear that there would be no room to mess up. That kind of old school, strong admonition has been replaced today by endless talking; classes and counseling, all inspired by the idea that we can somehow talk a person into “getting it.” While the intention is good, the results aren’t nearly so, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from doing anything other than hurling more classes, more counseling and more testing at a DUI driver. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I am uniquely qualified amongst DUI lawyers to address this very subject because I understand the clinical side of things through my formal involvement in the post-graduate study of alcohol and addiction issues. I fundamentally understand the value of counseling, but I also understand that it is a total waste of breath in most court-ordered cases.
Here is where we can see the real life implication of the saying that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” It is a basic fact that if you go out and sample 100 people at random and call them “group A,” and you next sample 100 people who have either had a previous DUI case or are currently facing one, and call them “group B,” the incidence of people with troubled relationships to alcohol will always be much higher in group B than in group A. Everyone facing a drinking and driving charge wants to explain that he or she doesn’t have a drinking problem, but the fact remains that when the smoke clears, DUI drivers, as a group, have a calculably elevated risk to have, or to eventually develop a drinking problem. There isn’t a Judge who isn’t acutely aware of this, even if he or she doesn’t quite “know” it in the way I expressed it.
“Progressive” thinking is to head off these problems and potential through education and counseling – talk therapy, if you will. The problem is that, when you’re talking 1st time DUI offenders, this approach is not very effective. Research validates this lack of success, but whatever counselor gets the court referrals in any given location makes a boatload of money trying anyway. The sad truth is that this is unlikely to ever change. Why, then, does the justice system ignore the obvious reality that the only time anyone with a troubled relationship to alcohol (or drugs, gambling, food, sex, or anything else, for that matter) gets better is when he or she is “ready”? Obviously, the desire to be helpful is present here, but if there’s one thing that never tends to work it’s giving someone help he or she doesn’t want in the first place. Remember the old saying that “no good deed goes unpunished?”
In that very way, the progressive line of thought has moved beyond merely punishing DUI offenders and tries to “help” them. They system tries to help them not do it again while addressing any issues with their relationship to alcohol, and help society by taking those steps best calculated to prevent the person from driving drunk again. As I noted, this is all well intentioned, but it simply isn’t effective. Oakland County, as a county, has always been ahead of the curve in terms of technology and general modernity. Accordingly, one should expect that its court system and Judges would implement the newest and most modern (read: progressive) options for sentencing DUI offenders.
If you’re facing a DUI in Oakland County, this translates into the possibility of more conditions of probation, meaning more stuff you’ll be ordered to do. Specifically, it means at least the potential for more classes, counseling, testing and/or treatment. If the old school method was to have stern Judge warn that he or she would lock you up for not following orders, the modern trend is to have a Judge send you to enough “talk therapy” to convince you that you want to follow orders.
It goes without saying that this beats jail, but if things can be made even better by avoiding or eliminating excessive any unnecessary classes, counseling and/or testing, then all the better. That’s precisely my job, and why it is important that I bring a clinician’s understanding to the table. If the inclination of the system is to harpoon you with classes and counseling, it won’t be undone just because some self-described “tough” or “aggressive” lawyer barks out to the Judge that he or she doesn’t think you need all that. To have any chance of avoiding excessive classes or counseling or testing, it will take a persuasive clinical argument to convince the Judge that what’s on the table is, indeed, unnecessary. This means that as the lawyer, I have to reach out to the right clinician to help me demonstrate this very point to the court. It means, specifically, that I need to clarify the legal situation to any substance abuse counselor I use for purposes of an evaluation, and then I must translate the clinical jargon in a way that makes the Judge comfortable with the idea that this client doesn’t need all kinds of classes or counseling.
Unlike the neighboring counties, there is no court in Oakland County where a DUI can be wrapped up with nothing more than the payment of fines and costs and a stern warning from the Judge to not do it again. Probation is a given. By contrast, there are a few courts in Macomb county where a DUI doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get stuck on probation. As I noted before, probation, whatever it entails, beats the daylights out of jail, but no one can argue that easier, shorter probation with fewer conditions isn’t way better than longer, more difficult probation with all kinds of classes, counseling and testing.
In the final analysis, every DUI case is what I call an accident of geography. No one sets out to drive drunk, much less get arrested for a DUI. When it happens, it does so without any planning as to where, much less as to when, or why. If you’re facing a DUI situation, it is what it is. Now, you need to make the best of it, but knowing something about how the “where” factor affects your case can help you make better decisions as to how to deal with it, and be more understanding about what those things with which you’ll have to deal. The end result should, in fact, be a better result.