As a Michigan DUI lawyer, I know that a DUI can just “happen.” In the real world, nobody plans to go out and get arrested for a drunk driving offense. Yet the chances are pretty good that if you’re reading this, either you or someone you care about is facing a drinking and driving charge, and probably wondering about the whole DUI process. An important role I play is to act as a kind of diplomat between the client and the court, and help each come to understand the other. That’s not just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, hot air from a DUI lawyer, either. To the court system, with its inherent alcohol bias, each DUI offender looks a lot like every other DUI offender, and comes into that system as an already-quantified risk. To at least most people facing a DUI charge, the system seems to overlook them as individuals who merely got caught up in an instance of poor judgment, and seems unfairly poised to presume that their drinking is a problem.
A big part of what I do is to “translate” to each side what the other is saying. Thus, to the client, I have to make clear that everyone, from the police to the prosecutor to the Judge (and even MADD which has significant influence over public awareness and opinion), sees drunk driving as a serious crime, and DUI drivers themselves as risky and scary. On the flip side, however, I have to make those prosecutors and Judges understand that my client is NOT simply a member at large of the DUI herd, nor the risky or scary drinking driver they fear. For all the stuff lawyers write about “the law” and all the confusing legal analysis out there, none of it is of any use whatsoever when a DUI charge is based upon solid evidence. You can read (or write) pages about the traffic stop and field sobriety tests, and all the things that could be wrong with a DUI case, but if there isn’t enough wrong with yours to get it thrown out of court, then absolutely none of that will help you make things better. What really does matter is how skillfully your lawyer differentiates you from everybody else to both the prosecutor and the Judge during plea negotiations and sentencing.
I often say that success in a DUI case is best judged by what does NOT happen to you. Once a person gets arrested, he or she begins to realize that this whole DUI thing is a really big deal. Often enough, a person will contact me (or any DUI lawyer, for that matter) and explain how he or she cannot have or does not want a DUI on his or her record. The legal system is not set up for someone to tell the court what he or she wants. It doesn’t work that way. I don’t like paying taxes, but I can’t just skip paying and tell the IRS that I need that money for something else. Since I can’t get out of paying taxes, I have a great CPA who makes sure I get every break available. The same thing holds true in a DUI case. The difference, though, is that your lawyer should first look to see if there is a way out of the case, and if there isn’t, then look to make sure that you get the best outcome possible, meaning as few consequences as possible. That will always involve making sure the court understands your DUI as an out-of-character incident that does not represent who you are as a person. In other words, that as regrettable as it may be, your DUI just “happened.”
Most readers will agree with my assessment thus far. I can’t imagine anyone saying that he or she went out and intended to drive drunk. However, I often caution against those lawyers who sell their services by telling people what they want to hear. As much as everyone will jump to concur with the idea their DUI just “happened,” and to tie in with what I said about my role as a kind of diplomat who “translates” each side to the other, I have to make the client understand that in the criminal court, as well as in the court of public opinion, there is another perspective about which we must always be aware, and that point of view sees a DUI as a lot more than just a mere instance of poor judgment. As much as I’ve had thousands of clients explain themselves to me, I’ve been in court for all of their cases, and sat through thousands more, and have heard, a million times over, Judges remark about the lack of good plans someone had made before getting arrested for drunk driving. Think about it; a group of people go out to celebrate at a bar, or the beer starts showing up at a softball game, and then everyone agrees to meet up later at a bar. How reasonable is it to believe the person was planning to never get a buzz and otherwise drive home stone cold sober? Whenever there is an activity that involves drinking, there is a substantial risk of consuming too much. They’re called “intoxicating liquors” for a reason. How many people leave a bar at or near closing time completely sober? When a person goes out drinking, it’s not that much of a stretch that he or she may have too much, and all it takes is a little bit to be “too much.”
These are some of the competing concerns I have to reconcile. In the real world, it is far easier to explain all this to the client than it is to explain the client, and differentiate him or her form the pack, to the prosecutor and the Judge. This is why I pointed out that all the breathalyzer knowledge in the world is useless if it doesn’t get your case thrown out of court. In other words, unless that specific knowledge keeps the evidence in your case from being brought into court, it won’t do anything to help convince the prosecutor that you deserve a break and to convince the Judge that the present charge is, in fact, an isolated instance of poor judgment and that there is little risk you’ll do it again.
This is really important. For all the effort a lot of websites put into making it seem like DUI cases can be easily taken to trial and “beaten” (and all the money people waste buying into that), the reality, as published in the Michigan State Police Annual Drunk Diving Audit (this comprehensive audit is required by law) is rather cold and stark: Out of 32,177 DUI arrests in 2014, only 68 people who went to trial won by a verdict of “not guilty.” That equals about one-fifth of one percent (.21%). The other 99.79% weren’t so lucky. The only “deal” anyone got who gambled on that and wound up losing got was a raw one. Unless the evidence in your case was obtained illegally or improperly, or it is otherwise so unbelievable that it will be tossed out of court, you better have a lawyer who can argue for you, sell you, and make sure that you are seen as different from all the rest. And keep in mind, every person facing a DUI is going to try and say pretty much the same thing. Every Judge hears things like, “I’m not a big drinker,” “I don’t drink that often,” “drinking doesn’t mean that much to me,” and “You’ll never see me again” all day, every day.
In order to really get a handle on all this, my first meeting with a DUI client typically takes at least 2 hours, and may require more time than that. I need to really get to know my client well. How can anyone make a convincing argument that a DUI is out of character for you if they don’t know your character to begin with? It takes time to get to know the client, but it’s time well invested when it pays off by being able to convince the prosecutor and the Judge that a DUI really is an isolated instance in a person’s life that just happened, and that the lessons learned mean that it won’t happen again. Sometimes, I have to spend what’s called “social capital,” meaning use my client’s accomplishments and position in life to show that what’s at stake for him or her (this can often involve professional licensure) is strong disincentive that will act as a preventative against any future recurrences.
There is, of course, a lot more to this, but as a starting point to examine this topic, and in order to keep this article short and readable, this discussion will do just fine. If you or someone you know is facing a DUI charge anywhere in Metro-Detroit (any court in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb County), do your homework. Read articles like this; read everything you can, but also take the time to read between the lines. Pick up the phone and call around. As you do, make sure you call my office, as well. 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.