As a Michigan DUI lawyer, one of the more common questions I am asked by a potential or new client is whether or not they should get into counseling and/or go to AA. In this article, I want to address that concern. There is a lot more to this than a simple “yes” or “no” answer, so we’ll address the various considerations involved over 2 installments.
My analysis is influenced by a lot more than just my being a DUI attorney, because I also bring a strong clinical perspective to this, as well, having completed a post-graduate program of addiction studies and having worked daily, for almost 3 decades now, with both addicted and recovering populations. I believe that my job is to help my clients in every way possible, not just in the purely legal sense. Of course, it would be easier for me to just charge a fee and just focus on the legal stuff, but my conscience always reminds me to treat others as I would wish to be treated, so I live and work by that golden rule.
Let’s begin, then, by refining the scope of our inquiry a bit. After a drunk driving arrest, when someone asks me, as a lawyer, about going to AA or counseling, what they really want to know is if doing so will “help” their case and if doing so will look good. We’ll examine that aspect of things later, but I think the first question should really be whether or not the person him or herself thinks they might need a little help.
In the real world, the moment a person starts to wonder whether or not he or she might benefit from talking to someone about their relationship to alcohol, then they should absolutely do so, and without delay. While many people wait too long to reach out for help with their drinking, there has probably never been anyone who did so too soon. It is simple human nature that people only start thinking about about their drinking behavior when things start going wrong.
It’s only after someone is honest with him or herself about the need to get some help that we can begin to assess the extent to which counseling or AA can help make things better in someone’s DUI case. Very often, it’s best if getting help is kept private, at least at first, because there are plenty of situations where revealing one’s involvement in any kind of treatment can “complicate” things in a pending case.
Unless advised otherwise by a good and skilled DUI lawyer, a person facing a drunk driving charge should not reveal to anyone in the court system that he or she is going to AA, or seeing a counselor, unless specifically asked. This is especially true in 1st offense cases. Even in situations where that kind of information should be shared, knowing exactly when and how to do so is key to “helping” in a DUI case and making things better.
Above and beyond all the legal considerations, however, there is a much deeper human issue here: there is no legal strategy in the world that’s more important than a person’s overall well-being. If something thinks they need help, they should get it without any concern about how it might or will affect their case; that can all be worked out later. This is why you hire a good lawyer, because he or she will know if and/or when and how to use that (or not) to your strategic advantage.
And for what it’s worth, by the time someone starts wondering if they have a drinking problem, they almost certainly do. Moreover, if that question is being asked by someone after they’ve been arrested for OWI (Operating While Intoxicated), it is extremely unlikely that the answer is “no.” One of my favorite old sayings is that “anything that causes a problem IS a problem.” Fresh off a DUI arrest, it’s the drinking that caused the problem.
My natural inclination to help extends to the person first, and the legal predicament second. Sometimes, especially after an emotional and stressful event, like a DUI, a person gets “softened up” a bit, and for a short time is more open to the idea of getting help, or at least talking to someone about their drinking behavior. An opening like this should never be wasted.
This window of opportunity will often close up soon enough, so the idea of waiting may cause the person to wait just a little bit too long, and they will lose interest in following up, often figuring they can fix or handle the problem on their own. This almost always takes the form of some imprecise plan to cut down or control the drinking, and that NEVER, EVER, EVER works. Whatever else, not jumping at this kind of opening can be a lost chance.
Thus, if a person asks me if he or she should go to AA or counseling, my response is that if he or she has any interest in doing so for themselves, beyond the context of the DUI case, then, within certain limits, my answer is yes. Let’s look at what I mean by “certain limits.”
In many 2nd and even plenty of 3rd offense DUI cases, getting into sobriety court program becomes an option for the person charged. These programs involve intense treatment and monitoring. If a person were to run out and enroll in some kind of IOP (intensive out-patient program), and then subsequently get into sobriety court, he or she will have wasted both time and money, because they’ll have to leave the program they started and complete the one designated by the court, instead.
Sobriety courts provide intense counseling and treatment – often thousands of dollars’ worth – at very little to no cost to the person going through it. Each court uses its own providers, and none allow someone to get treatment at a place of his or her choice. Don’t think this is any kind of second-class help, either, because while the treatment provided by a sobriety court may be government-funded, it is privately provided.
One of the biggest benefits to going through sobriety court is that a 2nd or 3rd offender can have the automatic revocation of his or her driver’s license overwritten, and will still be able to drive. By law, anyone convicted of a 2nd offense DUI within 7 years, or a 3rd offense DUI within 10 years, will have his or license revoked. That means taken away for good, not merely “suspended.” The ability to work around this to keep a license is and still be able to drive is HUGE.
The whole issue of sobriety court, and whether it is right for someone or not, is a subject in its own right, and I have addressed it in other articles and on my website. Here, the reader simply needs to understand that it is a consideration that fits into the bigger picture of whether or not a person should jump right into counseling after a DUI. This, in turn, brings up 2 more considerations:
First, the reader will note I didn’t bring up AA. Although AA (or at least some kind of community support) is usually a part of any sobriety court program, it’s not like the court mandates a person go to any specific meeting. An AA meeting is an AA meeting, no matter where it is held. Thus, if a person arrested for a 2nd or 3rd offense DUI starts going to AA, and even if he or she does go into a sobriety court program, it’s perfectly fine to continue with whatever AA meetings they’ve been attending.
Second – and this is really important – NONE of this matters in a 1st offense DUI case. Sobriety court is for 2nd and 3rd offense cases. Even in those courts that have a strong relationship with a specific clinic, counselor or program, in a 1st offense case, I can work it out so that if my client has started into counseling or treatment at a certain place, he or she can continue to go there, and not have to go to where some court “usually” sends its defendants, at least when I’ve made the referral.
One note of caution about AA is in order: AA meetings are like restaurants, and every one is different. I could rave on and on about my favorite Mexican place, but you might go there and just hate the salsa that I think is the greatest thing in the world. A person can go to an AA meeting and be put off in much the same way. Just like every restaurant is different, every meeting is different. Even a meeting held at the same place, but on a different night, can have an entirely different vibe.
To a certain extent, AA meetings tend to reflect the socio-economic makeup of the locale where it’s being held. Someone going to a meeting in an exclusive and wealthy neighborhood shouldn’t be surprised to hear small talk about rich people things, whereas a person walking into a meeting in a really low income neighborhood will probably not hear any such banter. I’m trying to be polite here, but I think it’s worth noting that, as a starting point, people should check out meetings in areas where they’ll feel comfortable, wherever that may be.
Of course, there are also all kinds of “specialty” meetings for things like women only, or men only, or professionals only, or even specific types of professionals (like medical people or lawyers, etc.), or LGBTQ folks, or just about any group into which a person could define his or her way into. For a lot of people, these meetings are very comfortable. The point I want the reader to get is that no matter what meeting you walk into, it may not be for you, and the next one and the one after that may suck, as well. It may be the fourth one, and not the third, that’s the charm.
In other words, don’t judge the entire AA program by any single meeting.
The AA program is, in a very real sense, foundational to the recovery process, and the godfather of all recovery programs. Just about everyone in the substance abuse treatment field uses concepts and terms that owe their very existence to AA. It would be an understatement to say that AA has helped millions of people.
That said, AA simply isn’t for everyone, and, indeed, not a good fit for a lot of people. Many people go for a while, learn what they need, and then move on. There are a lot of reasons why a person may not find AA to be right for them. Just because it was the first doesn’t mean it works for everyone.
Another great old saying I love is that “feelings are facts,” and in this context, if a person simply isn’t comfortable in AA, for whatever reason, then he or she doesn’t owe anybody any further explanation as to why. Some people love the group setting, while others don’t care for it at all. It doesn’t matter why, but if a person tries a few meetings and concludes, “this isn’t for me,” then that’s good enough.
There are plenty of alternatives to AA, and those can be explored with a good counselor. Some people get all the help they need though an IOP (intensive out-patient) program, while others do best one-on-one, with a single therapist. Some counselors run group meetings, while others have their clients do both one-on-one and group. Whatever. The idea is to find something that works for you, and that first requires finding a counselor who is a good fit.
I pride myself on referring my clients to a handful of really special counselors, but no matter how good I think they are, and no matter how many of my clients love any one of them, it’s entirely possible that a particular client may just do better with someone else. Finding a good fit is important, and part of my job is to make sure that happens.
We’ll stop here, and come back in in part 2 to begin analyzing if and, really, how, to use (or not use) a person’s involvement in AA or counseling to help a DUI case.