Scared Straight

Michigan’s tougher drunken-driving laws aim to have a sobering effect


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After his recent arrest on a first-offense drunken-driving charge, a local account manager is facing more than just time behind bars. If convicted, he might also have to deal with a suspended license, a record that cannot be expunged, and legal fees and court costs in excess of $10,000. And pursuant to his company’s policy, he might also lose his job.

On the other hand, he’s lucky no one was injured or killed.

A former law clerk with the Michigan Court of Appeals is now serving a prison sentence for manslaughter after slamming into a slow-moving disabled vehicle on a poorly lighted section of I-75, killing the other car’s two occupants. The attorney was on his way to see his minister, following an alcohol-related domestic dispute.
These are the types of stories that might make you think twice before having “one for the road” at your next company outing. Birmingham attorney Patrick Barone calls drunken driving “the crime that transcends all socioeconomic classes — and one anybody can commit.”

The majority of Barone’s clients are business executives and professionals with no prior record who are mostly unaware of the many consequences and the tougher laws being enforced in a criminal-justice system closely monitored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). His firm specializes exclusively in drunken-driving defense throughout Michigan.

“Typically, my clients are leaders in some capacity and have a good amount of control in their business and [lives], and this may be the first time in their recent memory where somebody else is in control — the police, prosecutor, judge, or jury,” Barone says. “They feel embarrassed and humiliated — and with the loss of control, it puts them in a state of distress.”

Barone’s firm has plenty of work and many potential clients. In 2006, there were more than 50,000 arrests for drunken driving in Michigan, and 17,000 of those were in the tri-county area alone, according to the Michigan State Police’s recent drunken-driving audit.

“Years ago, drunken driving was just a traffic offense. But not anymore, because it’s treated much more seriously — especially with the significant 2003 changes to Michigan’s drunken-driving laws,” says Barone, who frequently lectures to the criminal-defense bar on drunken-driving laws, and who has written a two-volume legal treatise called Defending Drinking Drivers.

Today the offense includes operating a vehicle with a bodily alcohol level of .08 percent or more, as well as operating while under the influence of a controlled substance, or a combination of the two. In turn, there’s no longer a bodily alcohol threshold needed to prove operating while visibly impaired or intoxicated.

“Significantly, prosecutors can now charge [someone with] operating while intoxicated even if the person has less than a .08 percent BAC level, and they’re no longer protected by legal presumptions,” Barone says. “In essence, it’s now easier to be convicted of [drunken] driving.”

The most recent development in Michigan’s drunken-driving laws that has drawn the ire of defense attorneys took place last January when Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the “Heidi’s Law” legislation, which removes the 10-year “look back” period for all drunken-driving offenses. Under prior law, a third offense was considered a felony only if it had occurred within the previous 10 years.

“There are all these people out there not realizing they’re facing potential felonies for another offense, and the state hasn’t notified them,” says Robert Larin, a Bloomfield Hills attorney who regularly lectures on drunken driving for the State Bar of Michigan.
 

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