Ignition Interlock Violations in Michigan – What’s your Plan?

Ignition interlock violations are an unfortunate and all-to-common reality for many people. There is probably nothing worse than having won your license back from the Michigan Secretary of State only to later have it yanked from underneath you. Worse yet, many of the cases I see, and certainly all of those I take, are for people who have genuinely stopped drinking. For a person who is really sober, an interlock violation just seems “wrong,” and it is easy to think that all you have to do is just get a hold of someone and explain things. The cold reality, however, is that once you receive the notice of violation in the mail, it informs you that the decision has already been made to re-revoke your license. The only thing you can do about it is to promptly file for a hearing and try to win your license back – again.

technical-problems.gifFirst, it is important to note that there is a time limit within which you must file for a hearing. In the case of an interlock violation, you must request a hearing within 14 days from the date your license is revoked again. Technically speaking, this re-revocation is called a “reinstatement of original action,” that original action being the revocation of your license. If you don’t file your request within 14 days, then you will not even have a chance to get your license back. When someone hires me, my staff will take care of filing this request, and I cannot imagine that it’s any different in any other law office. If a person has not hired a lawyer, then he or she should still send in for a hearing before the 14 days runs out. Any lawyer who comes on board thereafter can always catch up.

In the case of an interlock violation, the stakes are higher than just winning back the ability to drive again. If a person does not file for a hearing, or loses at a hearing, then the violation allegation(s) against him or her essentially stand as true. If, for example, it is alleged that Debbie the driver had 3 start-up failures within a few weeks, and she loses her hearing, her case file reads as if she got caught drinking and had her license re-revoked. The ramifications here are huge: Debbie’s old sobriety date will no longer count. Whenever she tries to get her license back again, she will have to very clearly address the prior violation as part of her new case. Even if Debbie simply missed the deadline to file for a hearing on her violation, the fact that she didn’t show up and contest the matter doesn’t look good. Putting up a good defense is not only key to winning (or, in the case of an interlock violation, not losing), but also has important implications for the future, and that even extends to unsuccessful violation appeals…

One of the more common complaints I hear in interlock violation cases is that the person had a problem, called the interlock company, and was either told something like “don’t worry about it,” “it shouldn’t be a problem,” or “we’ll make a note of this.” When the violation notice shows up in the mail, it becomes very clear that there is a problem. Some hearing officers attach a list describing what to do and what not to do with your interlock unit to the first order granting restricted driving privileges. Beyond the detailed instructions, the fact that this list is provided at all means that the Secretary of State has certain expectations for anyone who has an interlock unit. I remember sitting in a violation hearing once, and when my client told the hearing officer what someone at the interlock company told him to do, she asked him who granted his license in the first place: The interlock company or the Secretary of State? He won his case, but the point is that when something goes wrong, a person should do what the Secretary of State instructs, not anyone else. And if I can make a point on top of that, it’s that interlock companies aren’t particularly good or helpful in violation or even potential violation situations.

Part of the reason for this is that interlock companies make and install the devices; the state makes and enforces the rules. Imagine a sports game where there may be some kind of problem with how the ball performs. The coach of one team can get on the phone with the company that made the ball and talk all he or she wants, but in the final analysis, it will be the referees, and not the manufacturer’s reps, that will make the important decisions that decide the game. Here’s a more real world hypothetical: Imagine that Debbie the driver has a start up failure one morning, because her interlock records a BAC of .29. She promptly calls the interlock company, and is told to rinse her mouth out and try again. After doing just that, she manages to get her car started, and is likely to be told by the interlock people that everything is okay, so don’t worry. Now, imagine that happens 2 more times in the next few weeks, which then results in Debbie getting a violation. Debbie, of course, will be quick to point out that she called the interlock company and did what they told her to do. Yet in terms of her violation hearing, that won’t help her a bit.

The Secretary of State instructs a person with a start-up failure to go to the nearest police station and get a PBT (portable breath test) right away, whether the car starts or not. In the case of a car that doesn’t start, the state just figures the person had been drinking and quit trying because he or she wouldn’t be able to provide a clean breath sample anyway. In a case like Debbie the driver’s, where she did manage to get the car started, the state wants the PBT because even though the interlock showed clean breath samples after the startup failure, it does not know who provided them. There have been cases where a person who blew positive, or knew he or she would blow positive, had someone else blow into the machine, or drive the car. A prompt and clean PBT at the police station negates that possibility. You’ll never get those instructions from the interlock company.

Because it is so important to respond to and properly defend an ignition interlock violation, I accept representation in these cases. By contrast, I almost NEVER take on a breath test refusal hearing in a DUI case, even though such matters are heard by the same hearing officers, and in the same place as driver’s license restoration and interlock violation cases. In most breath test refusal (technically called “Implied Consent” or “IC”) cases, there is nothing I can do as a lawyer except waste my client’s money. I don’t take someone’s money if I don’t believe I actually do some good, or I don’t believe that there are interests to be protected. In interlock violation cases, unless a person has been, or tells me he or she was drinking, then there are interests to protect. And to be clear, this means that I don’t take cases for people who had been drinking and then got “found out” by the interlock device. That’s just the machine doing its job – and being good at it. The whole point of the interlock unit is to detect the consumption of alcohol, but sometimes, the machine gets it wrong. I accept cases when a sober person gets a false-positive reading, or has other problems with the unit, like start-up failures, missed rolling retests and tamper/circumvent violations that are not the result of just getting busted for drinking.

There is a lot of science that can, but does not always apply to certain violation situations, just as there are strategy considerations that need to be observed when handling an interlock violation. For my part, I charge $1600 for these matters. My initial meeting with a new client will take about 2 hours, and we’ll go over stuff beyond just the violation itself. I want to know about your recovery story. I have to get a handle on a lot of things, and most often, there is follow-up work to be done; documents to be obtained, letters to be written, and other evidence that needs to be rounded up. As complex and detailed as this can be in theory, in practice, it boils down to coming up with a plan, and then following it. I must go over the facts surrounding an alleged interlock violation, in detail, with my client. We have to play the “Devil’s advocate” game, where we provide answers to all the accusatory and tough questions that could be asked. The end result is that plan I just mentioned. About the worst plan you could have is some sketchy idea to just show up at the hearing and “explain” things, or otherwise insist that, “it ain’t so.” Good outcomes are the results of proper and thorough preparation.

If you’re facing an ignition interlock violation, do your homework and check around and read what other lawyers have written. Then, pick up the phone and call around. Make sure that, amongst the calls you make, you call my office, as well. All consultations are done over the phone when you call, so you can find out how I answer your questions right away. My office is open Monday through Friday, from 8:30 to 5. Help can be reached at (586) 465-1980.