Michigan DUI and the Amateur Expert Lawyer Wanna-be

Being a Michigan DUI lawyer means that a primary focus of my practice is handling DUI cases (the other part is driver’s license restoration appeals for those whose licenses have been revoked for multiple DUI convictions, so they’re quite related). I differentiate myself even further by noting that I geographically limit my DUI practice to the Tri-County (Wayne, Oakland and Macomb County), Metro-Detroit area. Plenty of other lawyers claim to handle OWI cases as part of a larger practice. Whether or not that provides enough courtroom experience to be considered any kind of “DUI lawyer” is questionable, at best. In this article, I want to address those situations where a non-lawyer starts digging around on the internet and starts thinking of him or herself as some kind of self-taught, quasi-expert. Someone may be great on Google, but that doesn’t make them a lawyer. My motivation for this article comes from any number of emails that I receive (and I’m sure plenty of other lawyers get them, as well) from people who learn a little about drunk driving laws and the DUI process, and then want to play lawyer, or co-counsel.

Docs-office-246x300To be brutally honest about it, those kinds of people are a royal pain in the a$$, and the only lawyers who deal with them are those that have to. In other words, confident and successful DUI lawyers don’t need to bother with them. A physician friend of mine once posted a meme of a sign hanging on a doctor’s office door that read: “Warning!!! Patient will be charged EXTRA for annoying the doctor with a self-diagnosis gotten off the internet.” This really is a variation of the idea that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” There is already a lot of work that goes into successfully handling a DUI case without a lawyer having to correct what a client half-understands. To be sure, I’m the first one to suggest a person “read around,” and there are some basic things a person should learn and know about DUI cases, many of which can be found online. Moreover, it is a good thing if a person reads and learns enough to have intelligent questions, but that’s a whole different thing than when someone starts looking for a lawyer to implement his or her own amateur, self-made legal strategy.

Can you imagine going to a doctor’s office and telling the physician what to prescribe because you’ve done the research? Admittedly, I KNOW when I am in the early stages of having a sinus/upper respiratory infection (I’ve gone through this my whole life) and I also know that for the last 30 years or so, I have had success with a “Z-Pak” (Azithromycin), so in those situations I may have to tell a newer doctor about my history and that the Z-Pak has always worked for me. Still when I do go to the doctor’s office, I am often required to give a throat culture and wait for it to be checked to rule out strep, but I accept that as just part of the deal. Beyond that, however, I’m not about to play doctor, and, as a lawyer, have no interest in wasting my time with a non-lawyer who wants to play lawyer.

Interestingly enough, in almost every situation where I’ve had a case dismissed or had the evidence excluded, it has been because I have been the one who has found the legal issue, and never because someone has come in and told me how the police got it all wrong. A great example of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous occurs when someone says “the police didn’t have any probable cause to pull me over!” A DUI lawyer knows that the police don’t need “probable cause” to do that; instead, the applicable legal standard is lower, and called “reasonable suspicion.” If someone doesn’t know this right out of the gate, then how accurate do you think the rest of their amateur legal analysis is going to be? I don’t say this to be mean spirited, but rather so that the reader facing a DUI charge doesn’t waste his or her time trying to find the legal exception that he or she thinks will get the case dismissed. That’s what you hire a lawyer for…

My late mom used to say that “when you deal with the public, you meet all kinds.” Boy, was she right. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’re not one of those problem people who wants to tell everyone else how things are done. Haven’t you seen someone arguing with a clerk at a store, or something like that, and beyond thinking the person is an a$$hole, wondered how it is that he or she has never come to realize, or never been told, that his or her attitude is the problem? Haven’t you ever dealt with a difficult person and honestly wondered, “How do you have friends? How can anyone really like you?” There is no shortage of people who just keep getting in their own way by being disagreeable and headstrong, and, whatever else, they’re never the brightest amongst us. Who wants to hear, much less follow, that person’s legal strategy?

Thankfully, very few wanna-be, amateur lawyers are that bad. Still, one of the markers of intelligence is the recognition that there is a lot one doesn’t know. In other words, the most brilliant doctors or lawyers would be the first to point out how much they don’t know (other than how much they do), and are seldom resistant to changing their beliefs when presented with new information. It is a red flag when anyone has the idea that, untrained in a specific field, he or she has anything more than a consumer’s understanding of it. This applies to everything from being a connoisseur of fine coffee, or a collector of things, to being a medical patient or legal client. Whenever you encounter the know-it-all type, it’s always great to remember that phrase, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Teachers, for example, encounter this all the time, because so many people find it easy to think that they know all about school simply because, they were once students.

Any real understanding of DUI law requires one to be able to see things in both the broader, more general contexts of public policy and state law, and the more local considerations that can cause very disparate outcomes for the same charge depending on the location of the court handling it. It was 20 years ago (1998) that the Michigan enacted the biggest overhaul of its drunk driving laws, and the implications of those changes and how the laws “used to be” are still important today. On the local level, a plea deal that is pretty much standard in one court may be entirely impossible in another, or even in the same court, if prosecuted by the state, and not a municipality. And it’s important to not just know that that’s the way things are, but also to know why. It’s this kind of comparative knowledge that sets a real DUI lawyer apart from just any lawyer. much less an non-lawyer. The layman who has spent some time googling and picked up a few common themes isn’t even in the ballpark.

Here’s another hard truth; for all the time a good lawyer is going to spend with a client, it is beyond frustrating to have to waste much of it having to explain how what the person has heard, read, or otherwise thinks they know doesn’t apply, or is outright wrong. In all my years, I have never learned about the law or how it works from a client telling me. I know what questions to ask, and I also know that I need to hear my client’s story in his or her own words. That’s all fine, until the client starts weaving in his or her legal analysis (“…so I was driving the speed limit, and then the cop pulled me over for no reason.”). Believe me, I’ll examine the reason for the traffic stop and everything else that’s relevant. Assume, for example, that DUI lawyer Dave is arrested for and charged with an OWI offense. Dave is a good and smart lawyer, so he knows enough NOT to try and represent himself. Instead, he hires Lisa, another good DUI lawyer.

Dave is not going to “tell” Lisa what’s wrong with his case. He may ask certain things as he relates his story, but because he knows that in his own practice, he’ll ask the right questions, he simply answers Lisa’s questions and tells his story under her direction. Now, at the end, Dave may talk with Lisa lawyer to lawyer, but he’s good enough to know that every case is best handled by an independent third-party. When doctors get sick, they treat with other doctors. Things may be different when you’re talking about working on machinery, or dealing with things that have no “story” to them (like a auto mechanic fixing his or her own car, or an HVAC person installing a new furnace in his or her own house), but when it comes to the legal system, playing lawyer can lead to very substandard results.

As I noted before, beyond all the technical, legal stuff, there is the local stuff. This isn’t so much about the law as the way things are done, and the way they are done in one place versus another. Things may need to be handled very differently in one place that they’d be somewhere else, and you’ll never get the faintest sense of how to handle that, even if you read and memorized everything on the internet. Moreover, a really good lawyer has his or her hands full knowing what to do and trying to bring about the best result possible without having to an unwanted “co-counsel” on the case. If you’re the type who just can’t help him or herself, then you should understand that many lawyers will be polite and will humor you – for a while – but then will eventually grow impatient. Remember, I pointed out that never, in all of my 27-plus years, did I ever get any useful legal advice or help from a client. Of course, this is very different from the person who calls or emails and relates something about the facts that he or she just remembered.

In other words, providing facts and details in always important and is never a bother. Providing legal advice to your lawyer, on the other hand, always is. I’ll pass on that kind of client, and so will any other lawyer who can afford to do the same. I’m not looking for help; I’m here to provide it.

If you are facing a DUI charge anywhere in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb County and are looking to hire a lawyer, I can help. All of my consultations are confidential and done over the phone, right when you call. You can reach my office Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., at 586-465-1980. We’re here to help.