A Quick look at Sobriety Courts in Michigan

If you’re facing a 2nd or 3rd offense DUI charge in Michigan, then you may have at least heard or seen the term “sobriety court.” In this article, we’re going to do a very brief overview of Michigan sobriety court programs and what they’re all about. At the most basic level, they are intensive treatment programs, run in certain courts, by specially designated Judges. The very term “sobriety court” reflects the underlying goal of these programs, which is to help someone charged with a repeat offense DUI quit drinking and get sober.

dude-300x272Michigan launched its sobriety court program as part of a 2011 initiative. At the time, the program was authorized for 3 years, in a handful of courts, but it worked so well that it has since been been made permanent and expanded all over the state. Although they are all authorized under one law, each program is unique to the court that runs it, meaning there are differences from one place to another. Some are of longer duration than others, and even though they are all “intense,” each has its own set of requirements, with some being more demanding than others.

In fact, sobriety courts have proven themselves to be a great tool for people who want the help they offer. Here, I must admit that when the sobriety court idea was first announced, I was skeptical. As a Michigan DUI and driver’s license restoration lawyer, I spend pretty much all day, every day, dealing with alcohol-related driving issues. Although I thought the intention behind the idea was good, I wondered if these programs could produce any meaningful results. It’s not like I was “against” sobriety courts, but rather I just feared that that they’d come up short.

Boy, was I wrong.

My background may help explain my initial reticence: After earning an undergraduate degree in psychology and then a law degree, I subsequently completed a formal, post-graduate program of addiction studies. I did that precisely because of our firm’s practice concentration in DUI and license appeal cases. For all the real-world experience I had, I realized that it would be extraordinarily helpful for me to expand my knowledge and learn the clinical side of things, as well.

When they were first announced, I wondered how the various Michigan sobriety court programs would be run, and who would be in charge.

As it turns out, most of these programs are overseen by dedicated people who genuinely believe in the work they do.

Of course, that all sounds well and fine, but in the world of addiction treatment, there can often be a dramatic disconnect between intentions and results.

Fortunately, my team and I have seen, firsthand, how sobriety courts have helped lots of people get and remain sober. Because we are a Michigan driver’s license restoration and DUI law firm, our perspective is full-spectrum, and much wider than that of just a general DUI lawyer, whose job is basically complete once his or her client is accepted into sobriety court.

One key factor that makes these programs so attractive to someone facing a repeat offense DUI is that a sobriety court Judge has the authority to override the mandatory revocation of a person’s driver’s license for multiple drunk driving convictions, and grant him or her restricted driving privileges.

That’s huge.

Normally, in our capacity as license appeal lawyers, we represent people long after their DUI case is over, probation has ended, and they become eligible to seek reinstatement of their driving privileges.

For anyone who doesn’t go through sobriety court, this will normally take at least 2 or 3 years – in the case of 2 DUI’s within 7 years – and 5 or more years for anyone convicted of 3 DUI’s within 10 years.

Getting a restricted driver’s license right out of the gate after a 2nd or 3rd DUI is, by itself, a serious, and potentially life-altering break.

Later, after person has completed sobriety court and the minimum time period for his or her mandatory license revocation has passed, he or she becomes eligible to file for “full” driving privileges, and that’s when my team and I get involved.

To put it bluntly, this beats the hell of out being unable to drive for years, and then having to file an initial license appeal seeking to be able to drive again after that long wait.

At their core, license restoration appeals are all about not drinking, and a person not only has to be sober, but must also prove it, by what the law specifies as “clear and convincing evidence,” in order to win.

Here’s where “the proof is in the pudding,” so to speak, because our firm guarantees to win every driver’s license restoration or clearance appeal case we take, so we carefully screen each potential client in order to make sure that anyone we represent really is sober.

The last thing we can afford to do is get paid once, plow ahead, only to lose, and then get stuck doing the case all over again, for free, as “warranty work.” Beyond that avoidable burden, we certainly have no interest into putting our hearts and souls into a BS case for anyone who is NOT genuinely sober.

Accordingly, we are as invested in success as our clients, but that starts by asking the right questions to make sure a person really has quit drinking for good.

What we have found, consistently, is that a lot of the people who compete sobriety court actually do get and thereafter manage to stay sober. The success rate is noticeably higher for 2nd offenders who complete sobriety court than for those who do not.

The “catch,” so to speak, is that in order for any such program to work, a person has to want help to stop drinking.

To be clear, a person simply can’t “choose” to go through sobriety court; instead, he or she must apply for admission, and then be screened to make sure he or she is a suitable candidate. The goal, of course, is for those who run these programs to ensure a participant really does have the ability and commitment to make it through the rather demanding requirements.

With all this in mind, it’s easy enough to see why anyone facing a 2nd or 3rd offense DUI would at least consider sobriety court, because, in addition to avoiding years without a valid license, there is often less punishment imposed, as well.

For example, if a person is convicted of a 3rd offense OWI in Michigan, the law requires that he or she serve at least 30 days in jail – but – all or part of that jail sentence can be waived if he or she is admitted into and completes a sobriety court program.

Avoiding jail and keeping the ability to drive are strong incentives, although, as experience has shown, they are far from enough for anyone to quit drinking who isn’t otherwise committed to doing so for him or herself.

For every advance that there has been in the world of substance abuse counseling and treatment methods, one thing will always remain unchanged: A person cannot truly get sober for someone else, or for any reason other than because he or she has really had enough of the problems caused by his or her drinking.

In other words, a person can only get sober because he or she genuinely wants to get sober. It can’t be done for someone else, or for any external reason.

In real life, people only change when they become uncomfortable with the status quo. We get into shape when we’re sick of being out of shape; we clean the garage when we get sick of it being messy.

On the flip side, nobody quits drinking because it’s working out so well.

In addition to providing extensive counseling and treatment help to help a person recover, sobriety courts either do it for free, or for mere pennies on the dollar. As noted above, these programs are ultimately overseen by a designated sobriety court Judge. While most jurisdictions do not have their own sobriety court program, many of those that do will accept transfer cases from other courts, so winding up with a 2nd or 3rd offense DUI in a location that doesn’t have one does not necessarily mean a person can’t get into one.

Just like salsa, or pasta sauce, every sobriety court is generally similar, but, as was pointed out above, each court’s program is also unique, and, at least to some extent, different from all the others.

Most sobriety court programs run in several phases, and combine counseling, community support (like AA), regular meetings with the program staff and/or the Judge, and frequent, regular alcohol and drug testing to make sure a person is staying clean.

Staying clean is a critically important part of remaining in sobriety court, because every program has built-in punishments for missed or positive tests. These are usually graduated jail stints for the 1st and 2nd violation. Normally, if a person screws up a 3rd time, he or she is kicked out of the program, loses his or her restricted license, and then faces sentencing all over again for his or her DUI.

While they all do good work, it would be disingenuous to pretend that all sobriety court programs are equal. Some Judges are a lot more versed in addiction and recovery than others. I can think of one local program in the Greater-Detroit area overseen by a Judge whose good intentions are every bit matched by his deep understanding of the fact that people recover in different ways, and his patience in dealing with people trying to stay clean.

That said, there is no “worst” sobriety court.

In a similar way, there is no “perfect” recovery, either. The majority of people who get into sobriety court will have to do some AA as part of the program, but, in practice, most of them will discontinue going at some point after they’re no longer required to attend.

Does that mean AA was a waste of time? After all, don’t some people swear by it?

The answers are no, and yes, respectively.

Most people can and will learn a lot from AA, even if they are otherwise not inclined to any its more “spiritual” aspects.

In fact, there are 3 AA truisms that are relevant to just about everyone’s recovery:

1. Avoid wet faces and wet places. This is an admonition, especially relevant to those in early recovery, to stay out of drinking establishments and to not hang out with people who are drinking.

2. One day at a time. For many people, the idea of never drinking again – ever – is a lot to take in all at once. Instead of worrying about what will happen when the New Year rolls around, or what will happen at some upcoming holiday gathering, or even this coming Friday, a person will always find it easier to put off any such decision until that time comes, and just commit to not drinking today. If a person can simply wake up and commit to not drinking for the day, then he or she will be fine.

3. Easy does it. The thought of quitting drinking can seem daunting when it involves huge changes to the places you go, who you hang out with, and what can seem like just about every aspect of your life. Instead of obsessing over and being intimidated by that, a person should just focus on the here and now (this ties directly into the “one day at a time” concept). It is not necessary to learn everything about recovery right out of the gate, nor does a person have to become an expert at anything; all he or she has to do is simply commit to not drinking today, and then, as the saying goes, “wash, rinse, and repeat.”

If a person spends any time at AA and then leaves, ONLY having learned to take it one day at a time, and then actually does that, then he or she is better for it.

In other words, a person doesn’t have to become a believer in anything other than that he or she has to stop drinking (and using any other substances, including recreational marijuana). What matters is that he or she has the commitment and the tools to quit drinking and to “stay quit” (remain sober).

Yet for all of that, some people will stumble along the way.

Sobriety courts take that into account, and they have consistently demonstrated that they can help people to get and remain sober over the long haul. Accordingly, and because the help they provide is basically free, they are a true gift to anyone facing a repeat offense DUI who is interested in getting help with his or her drinking.

There is a lot to the whole subject of sobriety courts, and our overview here does little more than scratch the surface of the topic. Given that every program is unique, then it should suffice, as least as a general summary, for the reader to understand the following 7 key points:

1. Sobriety courts are specially sanctioned treatment programs in certain courts.

2. They offer extensive counseling and rehabilitate services, either for free, or for a nominal cost.

3. A person must apply for admission, be screened, and, ultimately, accepted into any such program.

4. They are demanding, with lots of counseling sessions and/or meetings, and require complete abstinence from all substances, backed up by frequent and regular breath/urine testing.

5. Messing up typically results in progressively longer jail stints, but usually, it’s “there strikes and you’re out.”

6. In exchange for participating, and as long as a person completes the program, the Judge can override the mandatory revocation of a person’s driver’s license, grant restricted driving privileges, and can also waive jail time, even if it’s otherwise legally required, like in 3rd offense cases.

7. Any and every person facing a 2nd or 3rd offense DUI should at least consider sobriety court.

If you’re facing a DUI charge and looking for a lawyer, be a savvy consumer and read around. Pay attention to how different lawyers break down the DUI process, and how they explain their various approaches to it.

When you’ve done enough reading, start checking around and exploring your options. You can learn a lot by speaking with a live person.

If your case is pending in the Metro-Detroit area, meaning anywhere in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb or the surrounding counties, give our firm a ring, as well.

All of our consultations are free, confidential, and done over the phone, right when you call. My team and I are very friendly people who will be glad to answer your questions, explain things (including sobriety court as an option), and even compare notes with anything some other lawyer has told you.

We can be reached Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. at 248-986-9700 or 586-465-1980.

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