In part 1 of this article, we begin an examination of how, as a Michigan driver’s license restoration lawyer, I do driver’s license restoration appeals. The focus here is on what a client coming to my office can expect to happen, and how my methods are intertwined with the rules and procedures prescribed by the Michigan Secretary of State and it’s Administrative Hearing Section (AHS), the body that actually decides these cases. I think it is important to note that my way of doing thing is not only the product of extensive experience (I don’t think there is a lawyer in Michigan who has done nearly half as many license appeals as I have), but also comes with a guarantee to win. Yet for all of that, the key to every license restoration or clearance case is that you must be genuinely sober. In this second part, I want to pick up where we left off, with the letters of support, and work our way to and through the hearing itself.
I start work on the letters of support once I have received the completed substance abuse evaluation from the evaluator because experience has taught me that they should be reviewed as part of the whole or the (big picture), so to speak – rather than read in isolation. Even the smallest thing that’s overlooked in a case can ruin it, and there is just no way to keep track of those things by editing the letters one at a time, or in the absence of all the information in the evaluation itself. To do this right, there is no rushing things. It has long been my policy that I will only start work on a file when I have the time to open and finish it in one sitting. In other words, I will never begin working on a file if there is any chance that I may be interrupted or otherwise called away, because that break in my concentration introduces a risk that I may miss something, like even the tiniest inconsistent detail. In addition, I never work on a file just to “get it done.” I need to be fresh, and have sharp eyes. In the publication week of this article, for example, I have 6 license appeal hearings. On top of all my regular court and office work, this means that I have 6 nearly 1-hour “prep sessions” to do with each of my clients. My preps are usually done after regular business hours (again, I don’t want to be distracted or interrupted during such an important task; when I’m on the phone, I like to be in a concentration zone where my client and I are the only 2 people in the whole world). With this week’s schedule, there will be no time this coming week where I’ll be dynamic enough to review any letters. Fortunately, I caught up on all of them last week.
Thus, all the letters on any particular file are edited in one sitting. When the letters of support have been finished, they’ll be sent back to the client so they can be re-typed and notarized. The client then gets them back to me, and, at that point, we file the case. This is also when the second payment is due. I have all of my cases scheduled for a live, in-person hearing at the Michigan Secretary of State’s Livonia office of hearings and appeals. To me, it is critically important that we personally appear in front of the hearing officer, rather than doing it by video. While we’re on the subject of the things I never do, I never call witnesses, either. Out of the last 500 or so hearings I’ve done, I have only called 1 witness, and that was an exceptional and highly unusual circumstance involving an ignition interlock violation appeal. As a rule, witnesses are always a mistake, and an amateur one, at that. Once the case has been filed, it can take up to 12 weeks for us to receive notice of a hearing date, which usually takes place about 2 weeks later. All said and done, it runs about 14 weeks from the time we file everything until we’re sitting in front of the hearing officer.
As I noted above, one of the most important things I do in any case is to prepare my client for the hearing. I typically do my “preps” the evening before the hearing. This way, the stuff we go over will be fresh the next day. The prep itself centers, in large part, around which particular hearing officer has been assigned to your case. Some hearing officers are “old school,” and prefer to do most of the questioning themselves, while others (3 of the 5) prefer that the lawyer handle most of the questioning, and present all the evidence. No matter who you get, there will still be questions from the hearing officer. Each has certain areas that they feel are important or are of particular concern to them. As a result, an essential part of my prep is not only to make sure the client knows what questions both the hearing officer and I will be asking, but also how his or her particular recovery story is likely to be examined through those questions. I guess the simplest way to put this is that for all the talk one hears about every case being unique, this is the one point where it really is, and where that uniqueness becomes directly relevant to preparing the case and insuring a successful outcome.
When I meet my client in the waiting room the next day, we’ll be ready to go. Just the other day, I saw the kind of classic mistake that makes me cringe: A lawyer walked in, greeting his waiting client, and then moved to the back of the waiting room to “go over a few things.” My client and I shook our heads as I pointed out that such a strategy was clearly “a day late and a dollar short.” Instead, when I meet my client, we talk about the weather, or the drive in, or something else, because we’re both prepared and relaxed. I know this may sound trite, but a big part of the beauty of what I do is found in its simplicity: We show up to tell the truth. For all the attention to detail and the preparation that goes into a license appeal case, the bottom line is that it’s all about proving your sobriety. This is why all that “recovery story” stuff is so significant. It isn’t that hard to describe it if you’ve actually lived and struggled through the process of getting sober, and because we will have been mindful of it all along, it should be reflected in both your substance abuse evaluation and, at least to a certain extent, your letters of support.
The hearing itself is actually not that big a deal, precisely because we are going in to tell the truth. If we’ve done things right (and I guarantee to do just that), then our paperwork should almost be enough to win the case by itself. When you think about it, all we should really have to do is go in and prove that the person described in the evaluation and in those letters of support is the same person sitting in front of the hearing officer. I always tell my clients that as long as “that guy” or “that woman” is the one who shows up the next day, he or she will win. And that’s not cockiness, nor is it overconfidence. That’s just how it should work, in the same way that your pilot should be able to guarantee that he or she will safely land your plane at its destination. No one should ever think about accepting anything less.
Depending on the hearing officer, one of the other of us will be asking you most of the questions. The specifics depend in large part on who will be deciding your case, and, as I mentioned before, that informs our hearing prep session in a big way. The hearing itself starts out with the hearing officer going through and marking all the documentary evidence, swearing you in, and then deferring to me to begin the proceeding. Through the exchange of questions asked by both me and the hearing officer, your story will be told. My job is to make sure it is, and that it is developed fully. I’m also there to protect you in case you forget or mix something up. Before I ever call a client to do the hearing prep, I will have memorized his or her case. It is critical that I know, by heart, the important details of your case. No matter how much I tell a client not to be nervous about the hearing, everyone still feels a bit uneasy, so the client isn’t really in any position to pay attention to all kinds of details during the hearing itself, and it’s way beyond too late for me to start flipping through the file during the hearing to double-check things (and that would just look horribly unprepared anyway), so I need to have the relevant facts at the forefront of my mind.
As I pointed out, I never do video hearings. I believe that body language and even more subtle things like voice inflections are important. No small number of people, including big, strong he-men (this honestly happened to a client of mine who was a burly, black leather-wearing diesel mechanic) will find tears welling up in their eyes as they tell their stories. You miss this on a grainy web-cam type video. And to be clear, there is a video location less than 5 minutes from my office, but I would never trade convenience for effectiveness, and therefore I don’t even give the additional 45 minute drive a second thought. Remember, I guarantee to win every case I take. I do that by NOT taking shortcuts. And to repeat another “never” thing, I NEVER EVER make the mistake of calling a witness. If you think “witness,” then you should think “mistake,” because in a license appeal hearing, they are one and the same thing. I can get everything I need from a witness in a letter. Letters, however, don’t screw things up like witnesses can, and all too often, do.
The hearing itself, depending on the hearing officer, takes between 20 and 40 minutes, with 30 minutes being about average. Most of the time the final decision is mailed out within a few weeks, although on occasion, the hearing officer will let the person know that he or she has won (even though they still have to wait for the order to be sent to and be processed in Lansing). For my clients, it’s only a question of when they’re going to find out they won, and not if they won.
If you live in Michigan, you’ll win a restricted license that requires you to drive with an ignition interlock unit on your car for at least 1 year. After that first year, you can come back and do the the whole license appeal thing all over again (that’s right – new substance abuse evaluation, new letters of support and a new hearing) and ask to have the interlock removed and the restrictions lifted. You don’t have to do this, but you’re on the restricted license with the interlock until you do. Some people go years like this, while others count the days until they can file for a “full” license.
This is the nutshell version of how license appeals are done in my office. If you’re looking to win your license back and you have honestly quit drinking, I can get you back on the road. Take your time and be a smart consumer. Read what other lawyers have written. Call and check around. You can call my office as many times as you like, even to compare notes with something another lawyer has said. Chances are, though, if it’s different than anything I have said or written, I’ll politely tell you that he or she is mistaken, but the larger and serious point here is that I encourage any and everyone to do their homework. When you’re ready to take the next step, know that I do all of the consultation stuff over the phone, right when you call. We can be reached Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m, at 586-465-1980. We’re here to help.