Driver License Restoration is Counterintuitive
Michael G. Brock, MA, LMSW
(As Appeared in the Detroit Legal News 6/17/2009)
One of the more rewarding aspects of my practice is driver license restoration evaluations for people who have lost their license though drinking and driving and are appealing to the DAAD to get it back. As attorneys all know, the process is a difficult one, and requires the ability of the client to demonstrate clear and convincing evidence that he or she has been sober/abstinent at least a year and has high probability of remaining so. They don't all have to be committed members of AA to achieve this; sometimes it is sufficient to show that there has been a substantial change in lifestyle sufficient to escape the gravitational pull of the alcoholic milieu; a gravitational pull that should not be underestimated.
When these clients come in to my office they are able to provide a convincing argument that they have been sober the requisite amount of time, and often years longer. However, they are also often inclined to downplay the seriousness of their problem with alcohol and/or other drugs, and offer an argument to the effect of, "I wasn't that bad." Their intuition tells them that they are going into a quasi-legal process and that in any legal process it is a good idea to minimize the seriousness of their wrong doing and portray the offending behavior as an aberration. In most cases, they are probably right.
First offenders and persons for whom a misdemeanor (or sometimes even felony) charge is seen as a once time deviation from socially acceptable behavior will generally be given the benefit of the doubt, especially in Wayne County, where jail overcrowding has become a major problem. First offender drunk drivers usually are allowed to plead to Driving While Impaired and given probation and a restricted license for three months. First time non-violent felony offenders are frequently offered the HYTA diversion program, and if they don't mess up, the offense is removed from their record.
When it comes to a driver license appeal, however, nothing could be more damaging than to downplay the seriousness of the problem. If clients tell me, "I wasn't that bad," I can become very confrontational. I say if you weren't that bad, why did you get two or three DUIs, and why did you find it necessary to quit drinking? I tell them that any degree of loss of control is unacceptable. If they lose control of their drinking and get a DUI one percent of the time and if they drink everyday and get arrested each time they lose control, at the end of the year they have three DUIs and are working on a fourth. Moreover, if they had control of their drinking they wouldn't be coming to me for this evaluation.
I read other therapists' evaluations, and many of them also seem to suffer the same delusion that if they minimize the client's drinking he will have a better chance of getting his license back. In truth, there are two things a client has to convince the DAAD hearing officer of:
That he is an alcoholic, and;
That he is doing every thing he needs to do to arrest the problem.
Any other approach is going to be seen as denial. People in AA generally understand this from their AA training, but many alcoholics have other ways of treating their problems; they may become involved in church, have a good family support system, and a network of positive, sober friends. It is a lot easier to prove sobriety with AA involvement, but it is by no means the only way.
It is those who choose another means of establishing and maintaining abstinence who are most likely to follow their intuition when approaching an alcohol evaluation, however, and I think it is the duty of the attorneys who represent them to tell them like it is, and encourage them to put their defensiveness aside if they are going to have any chance in a hearing. First, the substance abuse evaluation has to reflect an acceptance of the alcohol/drug problem; then the client has to demonstrate the same acceptance of and determination to permanently solve the substance abuse problem in his or her DAAD hearing if they hope to have any chance of getting their license back.
A year later, they must demonstrate that they have driven without incident on the interlock device, as well as displaying consistency in their attitude toward their substance dependence and commitment to recovery if they expect to have the interlock device removed, restrictions on their license lifted, and full driving privileges restored.
Legal counsel should apprise his client of the reality of this situation before he goes for his SA evaluation. If there are attorneys out there who don't think a mental health professional should be giving lawyers advice, I would simply say that this may be the one time in the legal arena where what the mental health professional and the client have to say may be more important to the success of his case than what the attorney says. The client must speak for himself, first, through the MHP, then directly to the hearing officer. If he is seen as being in denial, there is little counsel can do to affect the outcome of the hearing.