If you wind up facing a DUI charge in the Metropolitan Detroit area, one of the first questions any DUI lawyer will ask is, “Where?” In this article, I want to briefly overview how location matters in a Michigan operating while intoxicated (OWI) case. To be clear, I am going to shift the focus away from things like which court is tougher, which one charges more money and all of the other specifics that we could examine (until the end of time, no less), and look at the bigger picture.
Just about everyone knows that for all things criminal, and particularly with respect to DUI cases, Oakland County is the toughest in Metro-Detroit’s “Tri-County area (Wayne, Oakland and Macomb). This is not to say that either Macomb County or Wayne County go easy on DUI drivers, but as a rule of thumb, just about everything is tougher in Oakland. For every rule, of course, there is an exception. There are a couple of courts in Macomb County, for example, that are, on balance, tougher than a few others in Oakland County. There’s nothing you can do about where you’re arrested once it happens, but the point is that, for better or worse, location matters…
Every Judge I have ever encountered has his or her own way of doing things. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because every person in the world has his or her own way of doing things. It matters more however, in a DUI case, because the Judge deciding your case can influence your future in a very direct and profound way. Every court is different, just as every Judge is different, as well, even if they work in the same courthouse. This point couldn’t be any clearer than in a local, Metro-Detroit court where one Judge runs a sobriety court, but the other Judge won’t allow any of his cases to transfer to it. This is somewhat strange, because I take DUI clients from one court and transfer them to into an entirely different jurisdiction’s court’s sobriety court program all the time. I have even done this across county lines. Some sobriety courts will accept transfers from different jurisdictions while others will only take people from within their own system; every place is different. Where your DUI case is heard is, more than anything else, an accident of geography. There is nothing that can be done about the “where” of your case once you’ve been arrested. I’ve had loads of clients get arrested for a DUI across town from wherever they were going because they got lost and went the wrong way. This happens a lot in the Grosse Pointes. A recent client of mine left Detroit, trying to return to Ferndale and instead drove the opposite way until she was arrested for drunk driving in Eastpointe. Lucky for her, Eastpointe is as good a place as any to face a DUI, but the larger point is that while her getting arrested there was an accident of geography, location matters….
Nor is this just about courts or Judges, either. Of course, as far as County prosecutors go, Oakland has the toughest. Fortunately, most 1st offense DUI cases, however, are not handled by County (also called “state”) prosecutors, but rather by local city or township lawyers, so this isn’t usually a big issue. Most of the local prosecutors are in private practice, and handle DUI cases as part of a contractual obligation to handle all of the legal work for a municipality, including criminal violations of local, misdemeanor ordinances. This is another subject for a different day, but the upshot is that you wind up with as many personalities and policies regarding DUI cases as you have cities and townships in the Tri-County area. However you cut it, local municipal attorneys are almost easier to bargain with than the county prosecutor. Here again, location matters.
In fact, the prosecutor’s established “policies” are the first hurdle that will need to be crossed if any of them affect your DUI case. Here’s a fairly common example: In Macomb County, if you’re charged with a High BAC offense, the state prosecutor in court will not be able to agree to reduce the charge. Instead, I have to accomplish that by submitting what is called a deviation request, which is written request for a variance from the Macomb County Prosecutor’s established policy of forbidding plea reductions in High BAC cases. A lot goes into a deviation request, and I have been overwhelmingly successful at them, in no small part because of my firm belief that who you are as a person matters in a DUI case, and by getting to know my client beyond just taking his or her money and showing up in court. The point, however, is that this is a “policy” that will directly affect how any High BAC case is handled in Macomb County.
In Wayne County, a High BAC charge can be reduced down in certain situations without the need for a formal deviation request. And if one is needed, instead of calling it a “deviation request” the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office calls it a “variance request.” In yet another irony, certain municipalities in Oakland County have ordinances allowing them, and not the County Prosecutor, to bring a High BAC case, and in some of those places a reduction can be negotiated without having to file a deviation request. Here again, we bump up against the proposition that location matters.
One of the things you should look for in a DUI lawyer is familiarity with how things work in the court where your case is pending. When a lawyer doesn’t know how things work, then you wind up paying his or her tuition. When a lawyer knows the lay of the land, however, then you’re paying for his or her experience. Without exception, the latter will always beat the former. The best way to find out if a lawyer is familiar with a particular court is to ask the question directly. The day before this article was written, a caller asked me if I was familiar with the Novi (52-1) District Court. I told him I was. He then asked me the last time I was there; I told him the week before, and that I had another case there coming up in the following week. He was asking the right questions. I’d say that if any part of a conversation with a lawyer or his or her office makes you feel uneasy about making inquiries and being a good consumer, then you should probably move on.
Knowing how any particular local court does things in DUI cases is a matter of getting to that court regularly, and you certainly won’t find the kind of repeat experience in a general practice lawyer, or one who handles all kinds of different cases. This is merely the “Jack of all trades, master of none” way of doing things. If you have a DUI case, look for a DUI lawyer. The general practice operation that does everything probably may do a passable job at most of those things, but a DUI lawyer does the same thing day after day, and that kind of experience is invaluable when it comes to mastering the finer points of properly handling a drinking and driving case. I suppose if there’s a wrap up here, it is that while location certainly matters, the nuances of that are lost if you’re lawyer isn’t familiar with the specific court where your case is pending. A good first impression about whether you’re on the right track or not with any lawyer is how soon he or she asks where your DUI arrest took place. Beyond the facts of your case, knowing where your case is pending is critical because, as we’ve seen, location matters.