The substance use evaluation (SUE) is the very foundation of a Michigan driver’s license restoration or clearance appeal. Often mistakenly called a “substance abuse evaluation,” its fundamental role in the license appeal process is frequently overlooked, although an insufficient evaluation is, in fact, the reason many cases wind up being denied. In this article, I want to narrow the focus from the evaluation itself to the person who completes it – the evaluator.
If there’s a common thread that runs through world of license restoration cases, it’s that too many people without enough license appeal experience – from people filing their own cases to lawyers, and even substance abuse counselors, look over the required documentation and mistakenly think, “I can do that.” The fact, is, most can’t – at least not in the way the Secretary of State wants it done, and this particularly apples to the SUE and stands as a key reason for many denied appeals. No matter how you cut it, nobody loses a license restoration appeal case because everything within it was done correctly.
I cannot think of any real-world example that proves the old adage “you don’t know what you don’t know” better than the whole world of driver’s license reinstatement appeals. As a law firm that concentrates in them, we handle over 200 license restoration and clearance cases each year. In that capacity, we are often hired by people to fix things after they have either tried and lost a “do-it-yourself” appeal, or have lost after having had hired some lawyer who claimed to “do” license appeals (usually as part of a much broader practice).
Although you can’t be a complete blockhead and be a good driver’s license restoration lawyer, even if someone is super-intelligent, smarts alone aren’t enough to make one successful in this field.
What matters is experience, and that often means having learned things the hard way.
This is particularly true for the substance use evaluator. No matter how great a counselor a person may be, the skills required to properly complete the state’s substance use evaluation form are honed through experience doing evaluations for driver’s license restoration and clearance appeals before the Michigan Secretary of State, not anything else.
That experience, however, is only as good as the feedback someone gets while gaining it, and that’s why, in our office, we work very closely with our main evaluator, and with the other small circle of evaluators we use from time to time in license reinstatement cases.
We not only speak with our main evaluator multiple times every week, but she sometimes accompanies us to license appeal hearings – not as a witness (as a matter of practice, bringing a witness to a license appeal hearing is an amateur mistake of the worst sort) – but rather as an observer, to see how the hearing officers who decide these cases interpret and use the information she has provided within the substance use evaluations she has completed.
That’s not the half of it, either. To really get a handle on how to do a proper SUE in driver’s license restoration cases, an evaluator needs ongoing and regular input about what information to include in it, direct feedback about the evaluation once it has been written up (so it can be finalized accordingly), and thereafter, the ability to observe how that evaluation is actually used in real life cases.
A lawyer who regularly handles license appeal cases will, of course, get this kind of experience but so must an evaluator, as well.
Unfortunately, very few actually do.
There is no way around the fact that the kind of “experience” that wins license appeals grows from having gotten things wrong in the past, and learning from those mistakes how to do them correctly. License appeals are governed by what I sometimes call “a million little rules,” meaning there is a lot to get wrong.
The simple fact is that it takes years to make all the mistakes one is likely to make.
With 30-odd years of experience to my credit, I am, fortunately, long past all of that. An important part of my role now is to pass that hard-won experience on to my associate attorneys and to our evaluator(s).
It’s great to learn from your mistakes, but it’s even better to learn from someone else’s.
And we all have to make mistakes. For example, even though I am not any kind of handyman or woodworker, everyone who has ever so much as picked up a drill or saw understands the value of the advice to “measure twice, and cut once.”
Like most everyone else, I had to learn that the hard way, too. The value of early mistakes, though, is that we vividly remember the lessons that comes from having made them.
About 20-some years after graduating from law school, I completed a post-graduate program of addiction studies. I remember one great professor, then head of the department, who always started each lecture with a written quiz.
The students in my program were almost all professionals of one sort or another (paying hefty tuition at that), and certainly not the kind of “kids” that would blow off the reading assignments. Nevertheless, we knew that each class would begin with a quiz about the reading assignment.
The professor explained that he believed in giving a quiz that covered the most important topics from the readings, because, when a person would get any answers wrong, he or she would definitely learn from that and remember it far more so than they would any question that they answered correctly.
You can only learn from your mistakes, though, when you know you’ve made them, and that’s where the rubber really meets the road when it comes to the substance use evaluator.
As I mentioned above, we have had hundreds of clients who have hired us after having lost a prior appeal. It didn’t take long to see that one of the main reasons so many of those cases had lost was because the evaluations filed with them sucked, and that, in turn, was almost always because nobody had ever given any of those evaluators any feedback about their work.
Remember, I noted at the beginning that one of the problems in license appeals is that just about every substance abuse counselor looks over the state’s evaluation form and thinks, “I can do that.”
As it turns out, though, unless he or she has enough a lot of experience experience doing Michigan driver’s license restoration cases, or they get really lucky, they can’t, at least not well enough to win.
This seems somewhat counter-intuitive because there is nothing about a license appeal that looks hard.
There is no reason any substance abuse counselor who looked over Michigan’s SUE form would think he or she couldn’t do a good job.
In fact, it’s not even that any such counselor would do anything other than good job by clinical standards, (he or she probably could), but rather that it that they simply don’t know the ins and outs – the “million little rules, ” so to speak – that are at play in license appeal cases.
The world’s best clinical evaluation can still fall far short of being good enough to win a Michigan driver’s license appeal.
We’ll stop here for now, and return, in part 2, finish up our examination why it’s so important that an evaluator have specific experience completing the Michigan Secretary of States’ substance use evaluation form.