The Hearing in a Michigan Driver’s License Restoration or Clearance Appeal

Within the more than 360 license restoration articles (as of this writing) I have put up on my blog, only a few have ever explored what goes on at an actual license appeal hearing.  I think that it’s about time to revisit this subject.  As a Michigan driver’s license restoration lawyer, I attend and conduct license hearings all the time. Indeed, I have 5 scheduled for next week alone.  It is understandable that people tend to think of their hearing as the climax of the license appeal or clearance process.  In truth, however, while it may feel that way, the hearing is actually not the apex of the license restoration or clearance process, and that’s a key point I want to address in this article.

scales-justice-legal-lady-liberty-233x300As important as the hearing is in any license case, it is really the preparation for it that matters even more.  Just a few days ago, as I was “prepping” my client for his hearing the next day, I told him that the proceeding itself would likely be rather short, and that we had probably spent more time preparing for it than we would actually spend in it.  I was right, and in less than a half hour, my client left the hearing room having won back his privilege to drive again.  This may sound trite, but the simple fact is, if you’re going in there to tell the truth, then the hearing isn’t that big a deal after all.  In the context of a license appeal, the Michigan Secretary of State requires you to prove, by what is defined as “clear and convincing evidence,” 2 things: First, that your alcohol (and/or substance abuse) problem is “under control,” meaning that you can fix a sobriety date, and then second (and even more important), that your alcohol (and/or substance abuse) problem is “likely to remain under control,” meaning that you have really quit drinking for good and are a safe bet to not drink again.  If you want to cut right to the heart of the matter, this all means that sobriety is really the “meat and potatoes” of a driver’s license appeal case.  In a word, sobriety is everything.

Here’s why I say the hearing isn’t such a big deal:  I will only take cases for people who are genuinely sober, but in exchange, I guarantee to win every case I take.  When a person has truly gone through the profound transformation from drinker to non-drinker, then the hearing becomes an opportunity to talk about that.  Getting sober isn’t something you can fake, nor is explaining your recovery journey like standing in front of the class, taking some math test where you have to remember calculations and rules.  In a license appeal hearing, it’s you telling your own story, and details aren’t a problem when you tell the truth.  If I’m your lawyer, I’m right there with you, to help.  “Help,” in that sense, means that I ask you questions and make sure that your answers are complete and see to it that your nerves don’t get the best of you.  If you forget or otherwise misstate something, I’m there to make sure we back up and get it right, or otherwise clarify it.  Part and parcel of my job is to have your case memorized, from your sobriety date to who your letter writers are and what they have said about you, and when I walk into that hearing room with you, I sure as hell do.   Let’s turn, now, to how this all plays out in the hearing room…

I have all of my cases set for a live hearing in Michigan Secretary of State’s Livonia office of hearings and appeals, one of three such offices (the others are in Grand Rapids and Lansing) in Michigan.  When your hearing is called, you will be escorted from the waiting room into the hearing room of your assigned hearing officer.  Each room measure about 17 X 17, and contains a cubicle desk area for the hearing officer that faces a long table with room for about 4 people.  This is where we sit.  When I conduct a hearing, I NEVER EVER bring or call witnesses, so it’s only me and my client in that room with the hearing officer.  Every hearing is recorded, so once we enter the room and sit down, the hearing officer will click on the recorder and begin the proceeding.  He or she will announce that the proceeding is being recorded, identify the case and number, and then ask the everyone to identify themselves for the record.  After that, the hearing officer will go through the documents and identify every one that has been filed, including any records already in the file from the Secretary of State such as the driving record, accident reports, and anything relevant from any prior hearings, marking each as an exhibit. Next, the hearing officer will swear-in the client, and then turn the floor over to me to begin.

As the lawyer, I am entitled to make an opening statement, just like a lawyer does at a trial.  I almost never do, and the reason why really sets the groundwork for the rest of this article.  There are 5 hearing officers in Livonia, and each one is unique.  As it stands, 2 of the 5 are “traditional” (one might now say, “old school”) in that they ask a lot of the questions.  By contrast, the other 3 prefer the lawyer to essentially run the show and ask most of the questions.  Because I’ve listened to the questions the hearing officers ask so many times over, I know what is important to each.  This not only means that I know what questions to ask, but which not to ask, as well.  Since I know what the hearing officers are interested in, as well as the kind of blabbing that makes their eyes glaze over, I know that, for the most part, they have little interest in an opening statement that promises to prove something.  In other words, instead of me taking about how I intend to prove something, they’d rather that I just move on to actually proving it.

When a case is being decided by 1 of the 2 “traditional” hearing officers who prefer to do the bulk of the questioning themselves, my initial inquiries are directed more to a quick overview of my client’s drinking history, and are designed (this may sound weird, but it’s true) to help the client relax and feel comfortable speaking.  I want to get my client “in the groove.”  There is a lot to this, and my prep session is specifically designed to make sure my client understands how things will transpire before the specific hearing officer who will be deciding our case.  I’ll make sure the client knows what questions he or she will be asked by me and the hearing officer.  When the assigned hearing officer is 1 of the 3 who prefer that the lawyer does the questioning, then we’ll go over what questions I will be asking in detail.  Again, each hearing officer is unique, so beyond those “core” questions asked of everyone, we’ll go over the areas that are of particular interest to him or her.

Let’s rewind here:  We go into the hearing room, the case is formally “called” on the record, everyone is introduced, the evidence is identified and marked as an exhibit, the client is sworn, and I am asked if I want to make an opening statement.  As I previously indicated, I usually do not, meaning that I will normally just start out by asking my client questions, which, I pointed out, are not only designed to give an overview of his or her transformation from drinker to non-drinker, but are asked in such a way as to relax the client and put him or her at ease in the hearing situation.  Believe me, after more than 26 years, I can do this as a matter of instinct, so no matter how nervous someone may be, or think they’ll be, I’ll have them at ease and smiling in no time.

The specifics of the hearing itself are dependent on the assigned hearing officer, and are therefore best reserved for my prep session, but it goes without saying that every hearing officer wants to know about certain things.  Beyond those that I have already described as “core” questions, each hearing officer has his or her own particular areas of concern, and what may be very important to one hearing officer couldn’t matter less to another.  This is where my extensive contact and experience with them matters a lot.

Once we’ve covered the preliminaries about your relationship to alcohol (and/or drugs), we’ll change gears and cover some administrative matters, and then get into the specifics of your recovery.  This happens regardless if it’s me or the hearing officer questioning you.  Getting into your recover is a deep subject, and since it is your story, it’s something that we begin crafting when we sit down for your first meeting with me (we have a lot to do in those 3 hours) and continue as we work on your letters of support, right up through prepping for your hearing.  Consistency is the key, but underlying it all, we have to be telling the truth.  This is why I require that a person be genuinely sober for me to take his or her case.  Crafting your story from what really happened is a lot different than trying to make one up.

If I’ve been the one asking most of the questions, then once I’m done, the hearing officer has an opportunity to ask about anything else.  Some hearing officers almost always have at least a few questions, while others may indicate that I’ve covered everything, and they have nothing further.  The more thorough my initial examination, the less the hearing officer has to clarify afterward.   When the case is before one of the “traditional” hearing officers, who wants me to set things up so that he or she takes over and asks the bulk of the questions, I am still given an opportunity, once he or she has finished, to follow up with any additional questions I may have.  This allows me to go back and address anything that I feel needs “fixing.”  It may make it easier to understand all this back and forth questioning by considering that the hearing is complete only when both the hearing officer and I feel that the entire story has been told, and there is nothing unclear, or otherwise left unsaid.

Once the questioning has been completed, I can and ALWAYS do make a closing statement.  While I generally believe that opening statements are a waste of time (as is calling witnesses and holding video hearings) in license appeal cases, I strongly believe in the power and utility of the closing statement.  Here, I get to tie everything up cleanly, and perhaps explain anything that, well, needs explaining.

The average hearing takes about a half hour.  Some hearing officers run through everything quickly, and can be done in 20 minutes, or even less, while others tend to stay right around that 30-minute mark, sometimes going over by a few minutes.  I usually think of one hearing officer as usually being about a 25-minute person, and another as a 35-minute person, with the other 3 being solidly in-between.  Some hearing officers issue their decision right then and there, although most will “take the matter under advisement” so that they can go over their notes and consider everything that has been presented and said.

For my part, whether the decision is announced right after the hearing or comes in the mail a few weeks later, I expect to win.  Beyond just saying so, I do provide a guarantee, so I put my money where my mouth is.  And although I may sound like a broken record for saying it (again), the reason I win is that I only take cases for people who have honestly quit drinking.  This means that the substance abuse evaluation and the letters of support will be truthful, and that the hearing, which can be thought of as an opportunity for the state, through its hearing officer, to confirm the information presented in those documents, merely requires you to show up and tell the truth.  With that as a foundation, I will win your license back, guaranteed.

Of course, this article serves to provide more of an overview of the hearing rather than a comprehensive, step-by-step look at what happens, but it does present, I think, a “good enough” general idea of what to expect.

If you need to win back your license and you really have quit drinking, I can get you back on the road.  You should take the time to read as many of my driver’s license restoration articles as you can on this blog, read around on my website, and compare what I say to any other lawyer you find.  Do your homework and be a savvy consumer; check around.  For me, this isn’t just a job, it’s my passion.  I think it’s important to look for that kind of passion as you look for a lawyer.  When you’re ready to ask questions or book an appointment, call my office.  All of the consultation stuff is handled over the phone, right when you call, and you can reach us Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., at 586-465-1980.  We’re here to help.