Michigan DUI – A Woman’s Experience can be Different

As a male Michigan DUI attorney, I am under no illusion that I have any kind of expertise in women’s issues, or that I’m in any way specially qualified in this area. However, I also know that some aspects of DUI cases are just “different” for women versus men, and that it is just plain wrong to not at least acknowledge that. Much of what makes up a DUI case is the same for both men and women. However, those things that are different, few as they may be, do matter a lot, especially to the person going through it. In this piece, I want to take a glance at some of them.

woman-thoughtful-sad-e1512232913690-300x199A DUI case is, at least in theory, gender-neutral. Most cases begin with a traffic stop, and usually, the reason for the stop has to do with how the person was driving. It’s not like the police usually know (or care) if the driver is male or female; that’s discovered later. Another thing that’s almost always a non-factor is how the different sexes metabolize alcohol. Sure, men tend to have more bodyweight than women and therefore will be able to drink “more,” but the law in Michigan clearly provides that a person shall not drive with a bodily alcohol content (BAC) over .08. It doesn’t matter how many more or less drinks it takes someone to get beyond that level, only that he or she is, in fact, above it.

Once a person has been pulled over, he or she will usually be asked to perform a series of field sobriety tests. Here’s where things can start to diverge. Over the course of my 28-plus years as a DUI attorney, I cannot count how many times a woman has told me that she was wearing heels when the officer asked her to do either the heel-to-toe walk or the standing leg raise. The most common response by an officer when that’s mentioned, or noticed, is to tell the woman she can remove them. I may not know what it’s like to wear high heels, but I know I would never want to try a field sobriety test in bare or stockinged feet at the side of the road on a nice day, much less if it’s cold, and/or raining, or snowing. Will this alone invalidate the test results? Usually not, but it’s something to examine as part of the evidence, and it’s one thing a man will never experience as part of his DUI arrest.

The whole process of arrest, booking and holding is essentially the same for men and women, but their experiences along the way can be very different. It’s normal for everyone to feel a sense of stomach-churning dread when they’re placed under arrest for OWI and put in the back of the police car to be taken back to the police station. But even there, women often have extra worries that men don’t. While being carted off to jail, a married guy with kids at home may think, “man, my wife is going to be pissed,” whereas a woman with kids at home may be freaking out about not being there to get them up and off to school the next morning.

A single guy may be wondering who he’s going to call to come get him the next morning, whereas a single mom has a much different and larger set of concerns.

The court system certainly presents the appearance of treating men and women equally, and I haven’t had any experiences where a woman was treated “differently” in any unfair way. That, however, doesn’t mean that the experience of a woman standing before a Judge for drunk driving may be very different from her male counterpart’s. Whereas the man may think of the whole DUI thing more as something to “get through,” a woman may worry very much about how she’ll be perceived by anyone who learns of her charge.

In a very real way, if we try too hard to be blind to things like a person’s race or color or gender, we wind up denying their very identity. Thus, while it may seem politically correct to pretend everyone is the same, doing so ignores their different experiences and cheats them out of recognition of that.

Imagine, for example a regular guy who gets arrested for a DUI after spending the day golfing with his buddies. To the extent anyone learns of it, he might get a slap on the back and have someone playfully tell him to take it easy on the beer. By and large, he’s not going to feel like any kind of failure. Even if he was the one who’d usually take the kids to school on his way to work in the morning, he’ll just find a workaround for a few weeks while his license is restricted.

If a woman winds up getting charged with OWI after a night out with her friends, she may very well be more ashamed about it than her golfing, male counterpart. It isn’t right that there is any kind of double standard, and, as a man, I certainly don’t wind up on the wrong side of it, but it’s also ignorant to fail to recognize that it still exists in what we think of as our more enlightened society. To a certain extent, a guy drinking too much with his buddies, while perhaps not altogether “acceptable,” is broadly perceived as less un-acceptable than a group of women doing the same thing . We really have 2 things going on here: the reality of a kind of “double standard,” and the reality of how a woman may feel about her DUI.

One thing that transcends all of this, no matter who you are, is that feelings are facts. If you’re sad about something, then you’re sad; that feeling is a fact. Thus, however exaggerated a person’s concerns or unfounded their fears, they are feelings nonetheless, and to the person experiencing them, very real things.

This means that whereas the guy standing in front of the Judge may have more of a “Sorry, I screwed up; it won’t happen again” attitude, the woman may feel like she has failed, in some way, on her obligations, perhaps as a mother, daughter, wife, employee, or whatever.

You don’t need to be a social scientist to realize that, even today, there is still a double standard that allows a a guy to brag about having a lot of sexual conquests, whereas a woman talking that same way would generally be perceived very differently.

Men don’t live under these expectations, but women do. Thus, the way we as men and women internalize some things differently is a natural by-product of that conditioning. This, in turn, affects what a woman facing a DUI may be most concerned about, versus the concerns most important to a man. Beyond mere societal expectations, we have the reality of life itself. As far as taking the kids to school, the inability to do that because of a DUI license suspension can be a crisis for a single mom that most men will never experience or understand.

This filters all the way down to dealing with one’s drinking. What’s the most widely known resource for alcoholism? AA, of course. It’s easy to suggest that someone go to AA, but even that can be different for women than men. Although there are a lot of women in AA, men still make up the majority of attendees. There’s nothing overtly sexist in that, but here’s how this can become an issue:

Assume that 2 DUI drivers, 1 male (Jack) and 1 female (Jill), with essentially identical cases appear before the same Judge, and get the same sentence, including having to go to AA twice per week for a year. When Jack walk into a room full of middle-aged guys, he sits down, never noticing that pretty much everyone there looks just like him.

When Jill walks into the room, she immediately notices she is the only woman, or one of very few women there. Not that the men are anything but nice, but she can hardly imagine herself sharing her deepest thoughts here, in a room full of men. She’d rather be anyplace else, and certainly would have preferred one-on-one counseling to this. The problem, however, is that her order of probation requires that she has to keep going to meetings twice a week for a whole year, and with her schedule, her options to find other meetings are very limited.

I’m not suggesting that I have the magic solution to this conundrum, but rather to point out that it exists, and that we need to acknowledge it before we can do anything about it. Thus, if I was Jill’s lawyer, I would almost certainly go back to court and present some alternatives and options to get her out of having to go to AA.  Regardless of my client’s gender, the goal in every DUI case is to bring about the best result possible, and, in that sense, success in best measured by what does NOT happen to you.

A DUI is an emotionally draining experience whether your male or female, and it brings a lot of stress. Much of it will be similar for men and women, but it’s just wrong to fail to see how the experience can be different, and perhaps even more stressful in some ways for women. This doesn’t give rise to some radically different method to handle a DUI based on gender, but simply means that it should be taken into account.

I’ve heard my associate, Genevieve, express an understanding with female clients, based upon her experience as a mom, regarding their concerns about DUI license penalties and getting the kids to school. I understand that at a certain level, but because I’m not a mom (and although I am a dad), I’ll never fully grasp it.

As it turns out both of my associate lawyers are female. For my part, I never had any agenda other than to pick the best people I could find to work with. I don’t believe there is anything to make of this, other than to note that my office is made up of all women, excluding yours truly here.

I do understand that sometimes, and in certain circumstances, a person may feel more comfortable speaking with someone of his or her own gender. One of the lessons I learned when I did my post-graduate program in addiction studies is that in the context of a counselor-patient relationship, it has been shown that while women are sometimes more comfortable talking to other women, men are usually somewhat less uncomfortable in speaking with the opposite gender. Whatever else, that’s never a problem in my office, whichever way it goes…

If you’re facing a DUI and looking for a lawyer, no matter whether your a woman or a man, you should be a good consumer and do your homework. Read around, then check around. Ask questions. All of my consultations are confidential and done over the phone, right when you call. We’re really nice people who will be glad to answer your questions and explain things. You can reach my office Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., at 586-465-1980. We’re here to help.

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