As a DUI Lawyer who has been in practice for over 20 years, I have seen the landscape of the whole Drinking and Driving field change considerably over that time period. Within the body of articles in the Drunk Driving section of this Blog, I have covered many aspects of DUI cases, from the Traffic Stop, to the Field Sobriety Tests, to the actual Breath Test, right up and through how a DUI case is handled in Court, including the Alcohol Assessment Test, how and why that is so important, the steps in the DUI process, through what actually happens to the Driver in Court.
This article will not be as informational as are most of my others. Instead, my aim here is to look at how the DUI world has changed in the last 2 decades. I don’t do this because I’m getting long in the tooth, or anything like that. Recently, a number of my DUI Clients have come to me with a prior DUI conviction or two from many years past, and can hardly believe what I’m telling them about how these cases are handled today.
To start with an example, I remember well when many Judges, in Sentencing someone for a DUI, would Order, as a condition of Probation, that the person simply NOT drink and drive. Today, there isn’t a single Judge who does not, as a matter of course, Order a person to not drink at all during the term of Probation. In the overwhelming majority of cases, including most 1st Offenses and all 2nd and 3rd Offenses, this is backed up by an order for breath and/or urine testing. Sometimes this testing is done at random, other times it is carried out more regularly.
A number of years ago (okay, at this point I’ll admit I’ve been doing this so long that I don’t remember exactly when) a few Courts would order someone with a DUI to complete an “Impact Panel,” often called a “Victim’s Impact Panel.” Now, every single Court, without exception, includes this as part of the punishment for a DUI. If the Pope got a DUI, the Judge might kiss his ring, but he or she would next order His Holiness to complete an Impact Panel.
Similarly, there has been an explosion of “Classes.” With names Like Alcohol Highway Safety Class, to Alcohol Awareness Class, to what’s called the ARM (which stands for Accepting Responsibility is Mandatory) Class, there seems to be no end to the kinds of Alcohol Education Classes a DUI Driver faces.
Today, just paying Fines and Costs is a relatively rare exception. 15 or 20 years ago, it was far more common.
Today, being placed on Reporting Probation is the norm. 15 or 20 years ago, it was often quite possible to, at worst, be given a term of Non-Reporting Probation.
Some Courts in Oakland County routinely order Community Service, or some kind of “Work Program” as part of a DUI Sentence. Luckily, those programs are virtually non-existent in Macomb County. Some Wayne County Courts have them, some don’t.
For all of these details, however, there is a single, overriding perception that DUI cases are serious. Every fatal accident involving alcohol ramps up this sentiment. A now-retired Circuit Court Judge in Macomb County put it this way to a 3rd Offender who had been caught, red-handed, drinking in a bar, by her Probation Officer while under Order not to drink:
“Society has lost its sense of humor for people like you.”
Could it be that, in the last number of years, we’ve just been paying more attention to these cases? I’ll admit that I’ve long noticed the trend that people who have 2 or more DUI’s usually (but not always) show a higher BAC in each successive case. Whatever else, this is fair notice that many people who get popped for a DUI, particularly a 2nd Offense have an underlying Drinking Problem, and that failing to address it early on can only lead to further problems. Most fatal DUI accident involve Drivers with prior DUI Offenses.
And while all the things like Classes and Counseling and Community Service and Testing certainly have skyrocketed in the last 20 years, it does remain a fact that almost every single 1st Offender can be kept out of Jail, and that most 2nd Offenders can avoid getting locked up, as well.
From a Judge’s point of view, the idea of Ordering someone into Classes or Counseling that they might not need is easily counterbalanced by the notion that they could just stick the person in Jail. In lieu of locking them up, making someone do a Class (or whatever) that they don’t need isn’t so bad, while if there is any message to be heard at such a Class, then the person is all the better off for it.
The days of a DUI just being a Ticket that can be paid is long gone, as are the days of finding an ashtray in a hospital waiting room. The world changes, and this is part of that evolution.
My job, as a DUI Lawyer, is to minimize the consequences of a moment of poor judgment and spare my Client as many of those sanctions as possible. This, I do well, from helping the Client do well on the Mandatory Alcohol Assessment Test, and making sure they don’t score any higher on that Evaluation than they have to, to keeping them out of Jail.
In 1st Offense Cases, this can be the difference between a light Sentence and one that’s even lighter.
In 2nd Offense Cases, the focus, is of course, on keeping the Client out of Jail.
Even in 3rd Offense Cases, it is possible (particularly in Macomb County), to avoid a Jail Sentence. In other Counties, even if a 3rd Offense Case is water-tight, much can be done to limit the damage the person will suffer.
Having been a part of so many of the changes that have occurred in the DUI field over the last 20 years, I can look back and really see how different things used to be. However, both my Clients and I are living in the present, so knowing how things are done now is far more important than recalling how they used to be, even if it seems they used to be better.