As a Michigan DUI lawyer, I have to take any number of things into account when I handle a DUI case. Where the charge is brought is always one of, and often the single most important factor in how things will work out in any given drunk driving case. Because of the profound effect of location, I generally limit my DUI practice to the courts of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties, although I will go to Livingston County on occasion, as well. As I thought about this topic and how to approach it for this installment, it occurred to me that the old idea of being “a fly on the wall,” so to speak, might help, so I thought I’d bring the reader into a few conversations had in the privacy of my office, with my staff, or in the confines of my car (hands-free, on Bluetooth), as I “talk shop” with a colleague who does DUI work in a different area of the state. First, let’s move into my office…
My practice (drunk driving cases and driver’s license restoration appeals) means that my schedule often changes by the hour. I may, for example, get out of court one morning in Clinton Township and call into the office as I walk to my car, only to find out that I need to come straight in because a new DUI case from Rochester Hills needed to be squeezed in. As I listen to some preliminary details about the new matter (and come to accept that I’ll have another protein bar for lunch), the first thing I’ll be told is where the case is pending. It’s that important. In fact, there are many local district courts where the same DUI case will play out differently depending on the specific Judge to whom it is assigned. If there can be different outcomes between different Judges in the same court building, you better believe there can be even greater differences amongst various courts. Accordingly, the 3 main rules of real estate are equally important in DUI cases: Location, location and location. Now, let’s get into my car…
If you could eavesdrop on any of the phone conversations I have with other lawyers about drinking and driving cases, it is just expected, and taken as a given, that any discussion about a specific case will at least begin by explaining where it is pending. I’d imagine that when emergency room physicians compare notes, it is important that they clarify what brought the patient in, like an automobile accident, gunshot wound, or sports injury. In the world of DUI’s the “where” is really the foundation of the case. Thus, you would hear a story that begins like, “I had this one case the other day in Sterling Heights,” or “I had this one guy in New Baltimore” (or Shelby Township)…” When Lawyers discuss DUI cases, they more often first talk about the court in which it is pending or the Judge to whom it’s assigned rather than the specific details of the case, unless they are highly unusual, and even then, it clarifies things to examine the case within the context of its specific location.
For most people, the fear of going to jail is their first concern. In the Detroit area, there is only one Judge in one court who puts a 1st offender in jail. If your case is another court, then you’re safe. The likelihood of a more lenient term of probation rather than one that has you wrapped up in all kinds of classes, counseling and testing begins with where your case is pending. Some courts are just plain “easier” than others. The same holds true for fines and costs; the very same charge can cost hundreds of dollars more in one court than it would will in the next one over. No matter what you’re looking at or for in a DUI case, the issue of where it’s being decided is of primary importance.
It would be great if I could provide a definitive ranking of courts and Judges from toughest to most lenient, and from least to most expensive, but there are 3 problems with that: First, and even though I think I’m pretty good, such a ranking would be subjective. Second, there are countless little factors involved in every case that make such a ranking impossible, even subjectively. For example, one Judge may gasp at a BAC of .19, whereas another may not be quite as shocked. Third, and probably most important, doing so would probably anger a lot of Judges. That said, there are a few generalities that are instructive to anyone facing a DUI…
Oakland County is generally perceived as the “toughest.” Note that I used the word, “perceived,” because Oakland County usually leads the pack in trying new things, as well, although it doesn’t get nearly as much credit for being an early adopter as it does for being tough. At the end of the day, though, you can expect a more demanding probation if your case happens to be in any court in Oakland.
Macomb County is, as a general rule, a bit more lenient than Oakland County, but overall, its courts are closing the gap. Testing as a condition of bond, pretty much ubiquitous in Oakland County, is now par for the course in Macomb County, as well. Macomb County courts are rather unique in that there is a consistency amongst the Judges, meaning that the difference between them isn’t particularly vast. Thankfully, even tempers reign supreme here.
Wayne County is, on average, more lenient than its northern counterparts, but there are very conservative courts here that stand as a counterbalance to some that are comparatively easier. There are no unpleasant surprises among the Wayne County Judges. While it is not my intention for this article to delve into individual courts, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I encountered one of the most considered and intelligent approaches to DUI cases I have ever seen in Plymouth-Canton’s 35th district court sobriety court, and I say that not just as a DUI lawyer, but as someone who has completed an entire clinical, post-graduate addiction studies program.
Beyond these generalizations, you’ll just have to discuss things with your lawyer. It should be obvious that any lawyer you consider for a DUI should know all of this stuff rather well. If not, then you should seek help elsewhere. Look, the reality is that every dentist has his or her first filling, every surgeon makes his or her first incision, and every airline pilot has his or her first landing, but when it comes to your DUI case, it’s not the time to be paying somebody’s tuition. If you’re going to pay for anything, it better be the kind of experience that means your lawyer has been in front of any particular Judge enough times to know about his or her disposition and how it compares to other local jurists. The lawyer you hire better know what flies and what doesn’t with your specific Judge, or else you’re flying blind.
This, of course, is why I limit where I go for DUI cases. Beyond just “knowing” about any particular Judge, it matters when your lawyer knows enough to caution you against saying the “wrong” thing in front of a particular Judge. “Knowing” a Judge means knowing what sets him or her off. When all is said and done, I’d rather have been represented by a mediocre lawyer who was all plain vanilla than some real sharpie who just happened to anger (or allowed me to say something that angered) the Judge.
The bottom line here is that location matters. For everything I can say, and all the things I didn’t, if you or someone you care about is facing a DUI and you’re looking to hire a lawyer, you can get my take on your situation by calling my office. We’re here to help, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and can be reached at 586-465-1980.