A substantial portion of my driver’s license restoration practice involved obtaining the clearance of a Michigan hold on someone’s driving record that prevents him or her from getting a license in another state. The very same evidence is submitted to the Michigan Secretary of State’s Administrative Hearing Section (AHS) for both a clearance and a driver’s license restoration appeal. Although just about everyone (understandably) wonders about doing an administrative review, often called an “appeal by mail,” most learn that 3 out of every 4 such cases lose, and that a person will have to wait a whole year before he or she can file again. Those with better luck read and understand this before they try, while the less fortunate have to find out the hard way. The simple truth is that the best and surest way to win a clearance of the Michigan hold on your driving record is to do a full appeal and come back for a hearing. For my part, I put my money where my mouth is, because when I take a license clearance and restoration appeal case, I guarantee to win it.
There are several reasons why I will only handle these cases for clients who come back to Michigan, despite endless offers to hire me for help with these ill-fated and ever-doomed administrative reviews. The first is control. When a client hires me, I control every part of the case, from the preparation to the evidence to the hearing itself. My clients will go my evaluator to have his or her substance abuse evaluation (technically, it’s called a “substance use evaluation,” but everyone alive calls it a “substance abuse evaluation,” so we’ll just go along with that) completed. The first meeting with a new client takes about 3 hours in my office, and takes place prior to the evaluation. In fact, the main point of that meeting is to prepare the client for the evaluation. If someone wants to have an evaluation completed by some unknown person in another state, I have absolutely no control over any part of that process. Beyond my input, it takes a LOT of time and effort for a substance abuse counselor to learn to complete the evaluation in the way the hearing officers of the Michigan Secretary of State’s administrative hearing section expect. Although just about any clinician can look at the form and figure he or she can complete it, there are literally countless little things that are not obvious and that are learned either by direct instruction or, as is usually the case, by getting it wrong the first time.
The reader needs to understand that a winning license appeal takes a lot of experienced effort. There are no shortcuts to doing things right. As a driver’s license restoration lawyer, this cannot be done by just sending someone out to “get” an evaluation and then looking things over (including the critically important letters of support) to make sure they’re good enough. I have to spend the time with and learn about my clients recovery, meaning his or her transition from drinker to non-drinker, at our first meeting. I also have to try and summarize that whole story within the paperwork I create. As it goes, every client leaves my office with a packet of information to give to the evaluator, including a form of my own creation called a “Substance Abuse Evaluation Checklist,” a specially marked-up copy of his or her driving record, and any other documents that need to be reviewed by the evaluator before the evaluation is completed. This is part of that control I have when the client comes to my office first, and then goes to see my evaluator. It is NOT the evaluator’s job to read your driving record, figure out your conviction history and learn the most details of your recovery story that would be most relevant to the hearing officer. Instead, it is MY job to make sure that this information is clearly presented to my evaluator, and I do exactly that because of the control I exercise and maintain over the case.
Later on, when I review an evaluation as I prepare a case, I do it within the context of making sure the information I set forth on my checklist has been accurately listed on the evaluation and that some of the “essence” of the client’s story has been captured therein. From an evidentiary point of view, the substance abuse evaluation is the primary way of proving that your alcohol problem is likely to remain under control, but it also takes on the larger role of really becoming the foundation of your appeal. There is simply no way even the finest substance abuse counselor in another state will know what is relevant, and what is not, to a Michigan Secretary of State hearing officer in a driver’s license appeal case. And if you, as the person filing the case, don’t have the knowledge from having handled hundreds and hundreds of these cases, then you won’t know what you’re looking for, either, and it turns the entire thing into a shot in the dark.
Then we have the letters of support. I could literally write a series of books on this topic, but the bottom line – and I think this says it all – is that 99% of the letters I review are sent back with corrections. In other words, as they are presented to me, MAYBE 1 out of every 100 letters is good enough, and those are usually backup type letters that don’t specifically get into the writer’s observations of the person’s sobriety or any examples thereof. Thus, a letter from the boss that says Sober Sam has been a model employee and is reliable and important to the company is not really a “support” letter, and I don’t count it as such, but will add it in with the rest of those we file. Because that kind of letter (or something like a letter from a counselor indicating that Reliable Renee completed her counseling a few years back and was a great client) is not “testimonial” to a person’s abstinence, I don’t really have to worry about dates and details, so those are the kind mostly likely to be part of that 1% or so that don’t get sent back for revision. In that context, probably 99.9% of all true support letters undergo revision and surgery by my red pen. As I said above, there are simply no shortcuts to doing this right.
Before any case is filed, it’s reviewed again. As careful and detail oriented as my office is, we still find stuff that needs to be fixed, principally because we’re looking for it. In a license appeal, “good enough” isn’t good enough. Things need to be perfect, or as close to it as humanly possible. Typically, Ann, my senior assistant, will give everything a once-over before I do. It is not unusual for her to hand me a file that already has some concerns of hers on a post-it note stuck to the front. Winning your license back is not about all the things you get right in your appeal; instead, it’s about the one thing you didn’t. It’s kind like flying an airplane; even if you get everything else right, it’s the one thing you missed that will crash your appeal, or your plane, heaven forbid.
When I give a green light to and then file a case, I know that 1 of 5 hearing officers will be reviewing it, as all of my license appeals are heard at the Livonia location of the office of hearings and appeals. I have to keep in mind not only all the written rules governing license appeals, but the questions each hearing officer commonly asks, and the things that are of concern to them. Some hearing officers will ask it you’re in AA, and if not, then move on. Others may ask why not, although that’s not because they think you should be, but are rather exploring you’re recovery from another angle. Hearing officers are like restaurants; every one is unique. I know the range of questions that will be asked, so I make sure, to the extent possible, to provide that information in every case I file.
Here’s the kicker; if ANYTHING in your paperwork gives rise to even a single question, then filing an administrative review is shortcut to losing. How are you going to answer a question that you can’t be asked in the first place? And there are ALWAYS questions. Think about that last paragraph; I have to anticipate the questions that WILL be asked. That’s the whole point of a hearing; an hour is set aside for questions and answers. If I ever even thought that anyone had a decent chance to win an appeal by mail, it would be a person who has been sober for something like 28 years, has outlived his or her first sponsor, has 3 of his or her own sponsees, has been the treasurer of his or her AA home group for the last 13 years, and has run the annual 4th step retreat for the last 10 years, as well. Yet even with credentials like that, everything would have to be perfect on paper, and if not, or if the hearing officer deciding the case had even 1 question, it would be game over until next year. No thanks.
That example didn’t come out of thin air, either; it is almost exactly like the only administrative review case I have ever taken (and did win on the first try). In the real world, most people don’t present with such strong sobriety credentials, and that’s okay, because sober is sober, whether it’s your 2nd day of recovery or your 32nd year. The point I’m making though, is that in the more likely case of someone who may have been sober for 7 or 8 years, and who used to go to AA, but doesn’t anymore, there are going to be lots of questions, and without being there to answer them, filing for an administrative review is like a Kamikaze suicide run. And for everything I say about it, remember that 3 out of every 4 administrative reviews do, in fact, lose.
When I handle a license clearance case, the client and I will thoroughly prepare for the hearing. Of course, there are always certain core questions that will be asked at every hearing (like “When is the last time you consumed any alcohol?”), but every hearing officer has his or her own “niche” areas of interest. Some hearing officers are more into AA than others. You certainly do not need to be in AA to win your license back, but if you do go to meetings, one hearing officer may simply ask, “How often?” while another may ask you something specific about a particular step or steps. This means, then, that “preparing” requires preparing for the specific hearing officer that will be deciding your case. Therefore, the same hearing officer who may ask someone who goes to AA about a specific step will instead have a different line of inquiry for someone who went for a short while, some years ago, but has managed his or her sobriety without it. And the questions might he or she will ask may well be different for someone who has never gone to AA.
The common theme here is questions. As I said before, there will always be questions, which is why trying an administrative review is such a long shot idea, and why 3 out of 4 of these appeals lose. That said, if the reader wants to give it a try, go ahead. Believe me, it’s often easier to deal with someone who has already tried and lost and needs no convincing than it is someone who is wondering if he or she can’t just wing it on their own. I’ll be here next year, if you need me.
The process in my office requires the client to return to Michigan twice; the first time, to meet with me and then have the evaluation completed, and the second time (typically about 5 months or so later) for the actual hearing. I realize this isn’t as easy as mailing in some forms, but it’s not like my office is in rural Kansas, either. I’m in Downtown Mt. Clemens, a suburb of Detroit. If you’re on the freeway, I’m less than 10 minutes from the 8-Mile Road border. My evaluator’s office is about a 2-minute drive (and not more than a 5-minute walk) from mine, so we make the whole process convenient. You meet with me for about 3 hours, and then go have your evaluation completed. The whole thing can be done in about 1/2 of a workday.
It’s pretty standard fare for me to end every article by telling the reader to do his or her homework and check around. Read what you can (okay, I’ll admit this is a bit self-serving, because I know full well that I have written probably 10 times more than everyone else combined), and then pick up the phone and call around. All of my consultations are done over the phone, right when you call. You can get answers to your questions by calling my office, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (EST) at 586-465-1980. When you’re ready to get back on the road again, we’re here to help.