As Michigan DUI lawyers, we deal with a lot of 2nd offense and 3rd offense DUI cases. In our conversations with clients facing those charges, my team and I always explore any options they may have for admission into a sobriety court. The key goal of this article is to provide a short and sweet overview of sobriety courts. Because this subject is rather deep, however, it was no small task to boil things down into a single installment, as I’ve done here.
Although each one is unique, a “sobriety court” is a regular court that has an officially sanctioned treatment program component for alcohol and/or substance abuse disorders. Although similar to an “adult treatment court” or a “drug court,” a sobriety court is a special kind of program designated by the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) to not only offer counseling, treatment, and support, but also confers upon a Judge the power to override the Michigan Secretary of State’s mandatory revocation of a person’s driver’s license and grant a restricted license.
The primary aim of a sobriety court is to offer a wide range of otherwise expensive counseling and treatment options at little to no cost to someone who wants help with his or her relationship to alcohol (and/or drugs). The idea behind this is that anyone who is racking up multiple DUI offenses has some kind of problem, and anyone who is willing to do something about it should be offered assistance, rather than punishment. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that a sincere desire for help is a prerequisite for admission into a sobriety court program.
With more than a 10-year track record, there can be no doubt that Michigan sobriety courts have been successful, and my experience with them in OWI cases is instructive:
Beyond being a DUI and driver’s license restoration lawyer – meaning that my life’s work essentially revolves around the relationships real people have with drinking (and drugs) – I have also undergone rather extensive clinical training, having completed a formal, post-graduate program of addiction studies.
Consequently, it’s fair to say that I am, by nature, pro-client and therefore receptive to any measures that are more “forgiving” for our DUI clients.
However, despite that, I must admit that I was rather skeptical of the whole sobriety court law when it was first rolled out.
Although I won’t say I was outright cynical when sobriety courts were introduced, having practiced law for over 20 years at that point, I wondered if they weren’t just going to be a big waste of time and money by a bunch of well-intentioned “do-gooders” who didn’t understand how things like substance abuse work in the real world.
It is often the case that people on the outside will try everything they can to help someone who is struggling with his or her drinking to stop. Depending on the relationship of the parties, these efforts can include everything from begging and offering incentives all the way to issuing ultimatums and threats of consequences, and everything in-between.
This, of course, runs head-first into the one thing that’s an absolute truth about any kind of substance abuse problem: A person cannot get over it unless they do it for themselves.
Thus, I wondered about if the underlying idea of sobriety courts wasn’t just a bunch of wishful thinking.
As it has turned out, my reservations were largely unfounded, and a lot of people have gotten a lot of help from these programs, and that’s a damn good thing.
I say this while also understanding that most people who develop a dependent relationship with alcohol do NOT get over it.
In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2/3 of all people who become dependent on alcohol DO NOT get sober.
In other words, according to these numbers, only 1/3 of all people defined as “alcohol dependent” ever do manage to get better. Beyond the implication of those numbers, however, the simple fact is that sobriety court programs have proven to be a gateway to recovery for a lot of people.
Here, we come to the point where it will help to explain how that state sees things:
It’s not uncommon for someone facing a 2nd or 3rd offense DUI to insist that, despite their current legal situation, they do NOT have a drinking problem, and aren’t any kind of “alcoholic.”
Some of the most common excuses heard from people charged with a 2nd or 3rd offense DUI are things like, “But I don’t drink that much!”, or, “I’m not a big drinker!”
No matter what such a person may think of his or her relationship to alcohol, what really matters is that anyone convicted of a 2nd offense DUI is legally presumed have an alcohol problem. Here’s why:
Under Michigan law, anyone who is convicted of 2 DUI’s within 7 years (or 3 within a lifetime) is categorized as a “habitual alcohol offender.”
As far as driving goes, if a person accumulates either 2 DUI’s within 7 years, or 3 within 10 years (in 3rd offense cases, the time frame is different for driver’s license consequences differ from the potential criminal penalties), his or her license will be revoked.
This happens because, as noted, the person is presumed to have some kind of troubled relationship with alcohol, and it is therefore considered too risky to be allowed to remain on the road.
To be clear, when a person’s driver’s license is “revoked” it means that it gets taken away for good. This is very different that when it gets “suspended,” which means it will only be taken away temporarily, and for a specific period of time.
There is simply no way around the legal presumption that any person who is categorized as a habitual alcohol offender and then has his or her license revoked has an alcohol problem.
Rack up 2 DUI’s within 7 years, or 3 within 10, and in the state’s eyes, you have a drinking problem.
For what it’s worth, though, the law is far less concerned about a person’s actual clinical substance abuse diagnosis rather than the fact that he or she is simply a demonstrated risk to drive after having drank too much.
Here, we look to the field of driver’s license restoration for some clarity:
The whole license appeal process is a bit complex, but the bottom line is that to win one’s license back after it has been revoked for multiple DUI’s, a person has to prove that he or she has been completely abstinent from alcohol for a “legally sufficient” period of time and that he or she has both the ability and commitment to remain alcohol-free for life.
In other words, the Michigan Secretary of State, knowing that people who do not drink alcohol are exactly zero risk to drive drunk, will only consider giving a license back to someone who can prove that he or she is both currently sober and a safe bet to never drink again.
The point of this detour is to reinforce the the fact that, within the court system, it is a foregone conclusion that any 2nd or 3rd DUI offender DUI has some kind of drinking problem, and will be treated accordingly.
For any 3rd time offender, it is assumed that his or her problem is all the more serious.
Anyone who wants to jump up and down and say “not me!” must understand that, as noted above, the court’s concern is less on a precise clinical diagnosis of this or her actual relationship to alcohol, rather than the more general idea that, simply by racking up multiple DUI’s, a person has demonstrated him or her self to be a risk to drive drunk after drinking.
Moreover, nobody in the court system cares whatsoever how infrequently a person may claim to drink, nor are they interested in any other excuses or explanations he or she may have. At the point where someone has 2 DUI’s, the “habitual alcohol offender” designation takes over, and that’s that.
And that brings us full circle, because how a person is “treated” in in the judicial system is really what separates sobriety court from regular court.
In a non-sobriety court 2nd offense DUI case, a person is still going to get ordered into counseling and/or treatment (that he or she will have to pay for), and will still be subject to breath and/or urine testing, but he or she will also feel quite penalized, even if they don’t get any jail time.
By contrast, sobriety court is demanding, but its focus is on providing help and tools first, and punishment second.
Because a sobriety court Judge can give a person a restricted license (whereas everyone else going through a 2nd offense DUI will typically not be able to get his or her driver’s license back for at LEAST 3 years), lots of people become interested in the whole sobriety court as a means to be able to drive.
This misses the point, though.
The whole reason for the existence of sobriety courts is to offer counseling and treatment to those people who honestly want help to quit drinking, and who are ready to take some steps to make that happen – not to offer a mechanism for one to simply keep his or her driver’s license.
Because sobriety courts provide all kinds of help at little to no cost, and because it takes a dedicated team of people to make it all happen, space in them is limited.
As a result, a person who is interested must be screened for admission to sobriety court. He or she must show a genuine interest in getting the kind of help that is being offered, and usually must also live within a certain geographical area in order to rule out any problems that could arise regarding transportation to the required meetings.
Sobriety court programs are demanding, and not to be taken lightly.
While every one is different, they all require a lot of time and a sincere desire to get clean and sober.
Nobody who doesn’t truly believe he or she has some kind of problem with alcohol or drugs will make it through, so those in charge of screening try very hard to weed out any such people before they even start.
This, of course, means that anyone who is “interested” in sobriety court primarily as a workaround to get a driver’s license will almost certainly not get through the screening process, and, even if they did, definitely wouldn’t last long enough in the program to ever get their driver’s license back.
As a side note, if a person does manage to get a restricted driver’s license through a sobriety court, but then either drops out, or gets kicked out of the program, his or her license will promptly be revoked all over again.
Given more than a decade’s worth of experience with them, I have rather strong feelings about sobriety courts:
As driver’s license restoration and DUI lawyers, we consider ourselves to be a recovery-focused practice.
It was my desire to help my clients who might have developed, or are otherwise at risk to develop a troubled relationship with alcohol, that was a strong motivating factor in my decision to enroll in and complete post-graduate education is addiction studies years ago.
My team and I take the “counselor” part of the “Attorney and Counselor at Law” title very seriously. To us, one of the greatest rewards we get from our work is a heartfelt “thank you” from a client we’ve helped.
Yet we also feel that it’s important for us to protect our clients from being required to get any “help” they DON’T need, or to be forced into some kind of counseling or program that isn’t the right fit for them.
So here’s where the rubber meets the road, and I put my money where my mouth is in this regard: our practice is largely divided into 2 areas: DUI cases, and license restoration appeals.
No matter you look at this, it is in our best financial interest to be there, waiting, for every 2nd or 3rd offense client to NOT go into sobriety court and then come back later and hire us for a driver’s license restoration appeal.
In other words, there is a far greater potential profit for us to keep as many people out of sobriety court as possible.
But we don’t do that, and we never would. Sobriety court work, and they change lives for the better!
We are here to help our clients, not help our bottom line.
Let me be very clear on this point: I think that sobriety courts are the best thing to happen in the DUI world in all of my 30-plus years as a lawyer.
If any client of ours is interested in checking out his or her options regarding admission to a sobriety court program, we HIGHLY recommend doing so, and we will gladly help in any way we can.
Part of the way we encourage people to do this is to make clear that by suggesting they consider sobriety court, we’re potentially taking money out of our pockets.
What better endorsement could we make?
Sometimes, a DUI will client wind up in a court that does not have a sobriety court program. In many of those situations, we have been able to get their cases transferred to a sobriety court in a different jurisdiction that will take them.
We’ve had many of our clients’ cases transferred across cities, and even counties.
As I noted at the outset, this subject is deep, and as such, no article about sobriety court programs can do more than scratch the surface. However, if I’ve at least triggered some reader’s interested in exploring sobriety court a bit further, then I’ve reached my goal for this installment.
If you are facing a DUI, whether it’s a 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd offense, and looking for a lawyer, be a wise consumer and do your homework. Read around and see how lawyers explain the DUI process, and how they explain their approach to it.
When you’ve done enough of that, start checking around. Nothing beats actually speaking with a live person.
If your case is here, in the Greater-Detroit area (meaning in any court in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Lapeer, Livingston, St. Clair or Washtenaw Counties), give us a call as well. All of our consultations are free, confidential, and done over the phone, right when you call.
My team and I are very friendly people who will be glad to answer your questions, explain things, and even compare notes with anything some other lawyer has told you.
We can be reached Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., at either 248-986-9700, or 586-465-1980.