HOW I APPROACH A MICHIGAN DUI CASE
Lansing Michigan OWI Attorney
When a client comes into my office facing a DUI they have a myriad of concerns, especially if it is their first offense. Their fears center around if they are going to jail and are they going to lose their license. This is closely followed by concerns of losing their job, scholarship, or not getting accepted into college or graduate school. After carefully explaining the process, what they are charged with, and what penalties they are facing, I explain my approach on how I handle a DUI case.
Challenging the Stop
First and foremost, I always look at the initial stop to see if there are any arguments to be made that the stop is invalid. After all, the police just can’t pull you over for any reason. They have to have “reasonable suspicion” which is a lower standard than probable cause. Anything from speeding to infractions of the motor vehicle code will suffice. Sometimes the police initiate a stop based on an anonymous call that a possible drunk driver is on the road. These have to be very carefully scrutinized as the courts have held that the information given by the caller must be very specific and not too general. The officer’s observations and length of the observation will play a critical role in determining the validity of the stop. It is very important to obtain the police reports, cruiser cam videos, and any 911 tapes to properly evaluate the stop.
This is not only the most logical place to start, but it also often proves to be the most effective because if you can get the judge to rule that the reason for the stop was insufficient, then all the subsequent evidence following the stop and arrest is invalid as “fruit of the poisonous tree” and thus, your case will be dismissed for lack of evidence. Don’t let the police trample on the Fourth Amendment– make sure they have a legally articulate reason for pulling your car over.
DUI Investigation– Field Sobriety Tests
The next phase is to look at what happens after stop. This involves your initial encounter with the police before beginning their drunk driving investigation. Usually it starts with the police asking you to step out of the car and perform one or several field sobriety tests, concluding with the preliminary breath test and then the arrest. This is often the bulk of my investigation as there are a lot of issues at play here. First of all, the police just can’t ask you to perform field sobriety tests just because they feel like it or it’s 2:30 on a Saturday morning (although that may very well be the real reason). The police will have to point to facts that give them suspicion that the driver is drunk or impaired by some substance. This can include a lot of factors including: a strong odor of intoxicants, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, disorientation, nervousness or fumbling around, responding slowly to questions or requests, admitting to drinking… it’s a long list. I carefully examine the police report and the video to not only see if they match up, but if what they are claiming gives them adequate reason to begin the field sobriety tests such as the one-legged stand, walk-and-turn, and horizontal gaze nystagmus.
Once the field sobriety tests begin, I carefully review the video to see if they are done properly. If they are not administered properly by the officer, that can give good grounds to challenge the arrest if you can successfully eliminate the evidence that gave rise to the arrest. You would be surprised at how many times the tests are done wrong. Only someone who is trained in what to look for will be able to scrutinize the tests to check for any issues or deficiencies. Any inadequacy in either the stop or field sobriety testing can provide ammunition to either get the charge dismissed or to get a better plea offer than the standard.
The preliminary breath test is usually given at the roadside and is often the clincher in the officer deciding to make the arrest. This too must be carefully evaluated. Not only does the officer administering the PBT have to posses the proper training and certification, but there must be a 15-minute observation period prior to administering the test to make sure the subject has not regurgitated or placed anything in their mouth during that time period as it could effect the validity of the reading. It is also important to obtain the maintenance records and calibration logs for the PBT to make sure that it was properly calibrated and maintained. If not, that could possibly get the PBT results suppressed.
Chemical Test– Breath, Blood, or Urine
Next comes the chemical testing. Although the officer has a choice of breath, blood, or urine, they usually opt for the breath test by the DataMaster machine at the police station. Again, there must be a 15-minute observation period as well as the machine being maintained and calibrated and operated by someone trained and certified. Sometimes the officer chooses blood as the choice for the chemical test. Usually they only do that when they suspect the driver of having drugs in their system (the breath machine only measures breath alcohol) or the DataMaster is unavailable, not calibrated, or no one that is certified is available to operate it. Blood draws have their own unique criteria. Again, it is important that it must done by someone who is trained and qualified to do blood draws and that it was done in the prescribed manner.
Chemical Test Rights
It is also important to carefully check that the chemical test rights were given to the suspect before administering the chemical test. Usually there is a form that is checked off and signed that accompanies the police report. If these were not given or were inadequately given, there may be grounds to suppress the chemical test results. When that happens, the case is often dismissed or at least severely reduced. That is why it is critical to closely evaluate the entire police report and other information that goes along with it.
I always make sure to get all the material I need from the police department via a FOIA request. This is how you can tell a good, experienced DUI attorney from a lazy novice. The inexperienced DUI attorney will get the police report and maybe the cruiser cam video and that’s it. In order to properly evaluate the case much more is needed. Besides the police reports and cruiser cam videos, it’s also important to obtain the breath room video, calibration logs and maintenance records for the roadside PBT and DataMaster, certifications of the PBT and DataMaster operator, complaint reports and discipline records of the police officers involved with the arrest, as well as all the booking information including mugshot and fingerprints.
This is how a DUI attorney earns his fee and is worth every penny. If you’re shopping around and someone says they will represent you on a DUI for $500, run for the hills from that guy because he can’t possibly do an adequate job and put in all the time necessary to represent you. He will get the police report and maybe the videos and plea you out at the first court appearance. That is not the guy you want. The only thing worse than representing yourself is being represented by a bad attorney. A good DUI attorney will more than pay for himself. The stakes are too high and the procedure much too complicated to do it alone.
After I have decided on whether there are grounds to challenge the stop or suppress the evidence, or the judge has ruled against me on such matters, my focus now shifts to a different phase.
My first objective is to see if there is any way possible that the charge can be outright dismissed. That’s always my goal right out of the shoot. If that proves to not be the case, now we move on to what I call minimizing the damage. That means I try to work out the best plea possible with the prosecutor and the best sentencing outcome as well. The standard plea in most jurisdictions for a first offense Operating While Intoxicated (OWI), is Operating While Visible Impaired (OWVI) or Impaired Driving. This may not work for some people as while it has it benefits from the OWI charge (restricted as opposed to suspended license, less points on your driving record, lower fines and driver’s responsibility fees) it is still a substance-related offense which may not help some people depending on their profession or educational pursuits. If that is the case, the tactics must switch to pursuing a non alcohol-related conviction such as Reckless Driving.
On it’s face, such a plea doesn’t look like a suitable offer considering it carries the same points and driver’s responsibility fees as the OWI charge plus a hard suspension meaning no driving for 90 days. At best it seems a lateral plea but the benefit it that it doesn’t carry the stigma of a substance-related conviction like impaired driving. Also, if you unfortunately get charged with a DUI later on, you will be charged as a first and not a second offender. In the long run, this may help some clients even if the initial pain is more severe. You would think prosecutors wouldn’t be so reluctant to the plea but due to political pressure to get a “drunk driving conviction” they consider it a concession and usually will not willingly offer it unless persuaded with good reasoning by your DUI attorney. Financially the township, city, or county will come out the same, if not better, but it’s not as big of a feather to stick in their cap as an impaired or OWI conviction. Your best bet in obtaining Reckless Driving is on your first offense and the lower your blood alcohol content the better. If it’s your second offense, it’s harder to convince them to have sympathy for the detriment it’s going to have on your career. Absent some problems with their case to use as leverage, your best bet at getting a reckless plea is for your first offense.
Once a conviction or plea has been entered, the next step before the sentencing is the mandatory alcohol assessment by the probation department. A lot of people and attorneys just don’t realize how critical this is. It is vital that your client score the lowest they can on the assessment thus demonstrating that they are a low risk. The higher the score, the higher they look as a risk which means the worse the recommendations are from the probation department. Often the higher the score the more cumbersome and expensive the recommendations too. While jail is still a rarity for first time offenders, other punishment comes in the form of reporting probation with random and/or scheduled pbts, community service, alcohol educational classes, attending a MADD Victim Impact Panel; all of which cost money on top of your fines, court costs, driver’s responsibility fees, and higher insurance premiums. That’s why it is important to get the best score you can on the assessment. I often spend an hour or more preparing the client for the assessment and sometimes have them get an assessment shortly after hiring me to 1) give me an idea as to what their assessment will reveal, and 2) if it’s good use it as leverage with the prosecutor for getting a better deal. This is an important step than many attorneys overlook or downplay.
The conclusion of your DUI case is the sentencing. This takes place last after you and the judge have read the Presentence Report completed by the probation department. Many judges strictly or at least closely follow the recommendations but there are some that can be persuaded otherwise. That is where having a good, experienced attorney comes in handy. I prepare for sentencing just like I do the other phases of the case. It’s important to not only go over the Presentence Report for errors, but on how to respond or mitigate any unfavorable comments. It’s also important to present your client in the best light possible. This can include bringing documentation of any educational or professional accomplishments, volunteer work, family support, evidence of any AA attendance or alcohol classes that they have attended, letter of support or character reference. I prepare to point out as many good qualities that my client has in order to show the court not just their redeeming qualities, but to show the occasion that gave rise to their DUI was an anomaly, uncharacteristic, and not who they truly are. I then prepare the client on how to address the court if they wish to. I encourage clients to but some don’t and I respect that as not everyone is comfortable speaking infront of the judge in a crowded courtroom. It’s better to remain silent than for them to speak and make matters worse.
That is how I prepare for and approach a DUI case. Hopefully you can see the value in hiring someone experienced in this complex area of practice. It can be a lot of work, but the results can also be very rewarding and my goal is to always strive to get the best possible resolve for my client whether that is a dismissal, a good plea deal, or go to trial. Whatever the outcome, it all starts with preparation.
If you have been charged with DUI, OWI, or drunk driving, contact Austin Legal Services, PLC today at (517) 614-1983 to speak to a Michigan DUI lawyer to review your case.
Representing clients on charges of DUI and OWI throughout Michigan in the counties of Ingham, Eaton, Clinton, Barry, Gratiot, Jackson, Livingston, and Shiawassee in the cities of Lansing, East Lansing, Mason, Holt, Williamston, Okemos, Eaton Rapids, Charlotte, Hastings, Ithaca, St. Johns, Bath, Brighton, Howell, Corunna, Durand.