In this article, I want to explain the larger and primary purpose of the substance use evaluation (SUE) required in every Michigan driver’s license restoration and clearance case. I have divided this piece into 2 relatively small installments.
The first thing we should do is to clarify the name, “substance use evaluation,” because many, if not most people, call it a “substance abuse evaluation.” I’m as guilty of that as anyone, both terms are used to mean the same thing. To keep things simple, we’ll often refer to the evaluation by using the abbreviation “SUE” in this discussion.
The Michigan Secretary of State has published an official substance use evaluation form for use in all license appeal cases. It’s best to use that form in a license appeal, although some evaluators use their own homemade form similar to the state’s. Our evaluator does it best, using an editable version of the official form that lists all the information relevant to a given case.
The true purpose of the substance use evaluation is to provide a clinically accurate picture of several things:
- A person’s alcohol and drug use history,
- Whether or not he or she is currently clean and sober,
- A detailed listing of whatever education, counseling, treatment and community support he or she has had, and whether or not any of it is still ongoing,
- The evaluator’s professional opinion about how likely the person is to remain alcohol and/or drug free, and
- What, if anything, by way of continued care, he or she should do to remain (or become) clean or sober.
That sounds like a lot, because it is a lot.
Yet for all of that detail, this is NOT as complicated as it sounds. At the end of the day, the information provided on the SUE should come together to clearly inform the hearing officer how long a person has been alcohol and/or drug free, and if he or she is a safe bet to never drink and/or use drugs again.
If you had to boil a license appeal down to 1 single thing, it’s about proving to the Michigan Secretary of State that the person has quit drinking for good because he or she has the ability and commitment to remain alcohol-free.
Unfortunately, lots of evaluators don’t fully understand this as the real purpose of the evaluation, nor their role in putting it all together, so they get lost along the way. This, in turn, helps explain why so many evaluations are ultimately found by the Secretary of State to not be good enough.
Worse, a lot of evaluators really do want to help their client, and think they can do so by making the evaluation really favorable. Despite those good intentions, what the state is really looking for is an objective snapshot of the person, including the good, the bad, and everything else.
If you look at the evaluation form, you’ll see a “Client Prognosis” section. This is really the key part of the evaluation, because it’s where the evaluator gives his or her best clinical estimate of the likelihood that the client will remain sober.
There are 5 checkboxes in the prognosis section, and the evaluator must make a choice and check one of them: Poor, Guarded, Fair, Good, or Excellent.
At first, it would seem a no-brainer that Excellent is the best, right?
In order to be eligible to win, the prognosis in the evaluation must be either good or excellent. By law, a license appeal MUST be denied if a person’s prognosis is either poor, guarded, or fair.
To those who haven’t learned better, the lure of “excellent” is rather strong. However, in the real world, that box is most often checked by an evaluator who doesn’t have the experience to understand the way the Secretary of State hearing officers interpret all this. Let me explain what I mean:
Imagine a guy like old Ralph, who has been sober for 38 years, has been in AA the whole time, having outlived his first sponsor, and who, over the course of those years, been a sponsor himself to 6 or 7 other people at his home group, where has been the treasurer for the last decade.
Ralph is a good candidate for an “excellent” prognosis. Ralph is also something of a rarity.
Now, consider Belinda, who has been sober for almost 4 years, and who did counseling and went to AA for a year under court order, but hasn’t been back to either since her probation ended. Still, Belinda is genuinely sober, and keeps no alcohol in the home she shares with her husband, who does not drink to support her.
Belinda certainly deserves a “good” prognosis, but she’s no Ralph, and at least a decade away from anything like an “excellent” prognosis. Most people who win license appeals are much more like Belinda than Ralph.
In the real world, “excellent” is reserved for very few people. Our main evaluator gives out an “excellent” prognosis about once every year or so among the nearly 200 clients we send annually for an evaluation.
What less experienced evaluators and lawyers miss is that a “good” prognosis is good enough, while “excellent,” when misapplied, can be a real liability in a license appeal. In fact, if an evaluator gave Belinda an “excellent” prognosis, it would not only NOT help her case, but undercut that evaluator’s credibility, as well.
It makes sense, of course, that the state wants a clinically accurate picture of anyone seeking a license.
However, over time, the hearing officers have also developed certain expectations about the kind of information they want, and certain ways of interpreting it that is NOT obvious from just looking at the form.
We’ll stop here, and resume, in part 2, by discussing some of the more important and subtle aspects of the substance use evaluation, and why an evaluator can really only learn these nuances by working closely and over the long term with a driver’s license restoration lawyer or law firm.