Review of Detroit-Area DUI Arrests Reveals Stark Sentencing Differences

The potential consequences of an operating while intoxicated (OWI) conviction in Michigan are well known to most drivers. Loss of driving privileges, an increase in insurance rates and considerable fines can create significant hardships and barriers to future mobility and job opportunities.

Drivers must also recognize the very real possibility of incarceration after an arrest for OWI. A series of recent stories in the Detroit Free Press looked at local court records from Oakland County, Macomb County and Wayne County, and suggested that the degree of punishment has a good deal to do with where in metro Detroit a driver is arrested.

The report identified considerable differences among average jail time, fines and community service imposed for first-offense OWI. In Warren, a first-time drunk driving conviction led to an average sentence of 32 days in jail, while in many other communities jail time was minimal.

Statistics compiled by the Michigan State Police for its annual Drunken Driving Audit show that 20 of 50 metro Detroit district courts report zero average jail time for first-time offenders facing impaired driving charges. Average fines ranged from a high of over $1,700 in Southgate and Ferndale to barely a third of that amount in municipal Detroit, and only $112 in Highland Park.

Judicial Sentencing Guidelines for OWI, OUIL or UBAL Convictions

One reason for these major inconsistencies in enforcement is the lack of sentencing guidelines for misdemeanor intoxicated driving crimes in Michigan. With nearly 40 OWI/DUI arrests every day in the Detroit metropolitan area, and well over 10,000 breath tests administered in 2010, advocacy groups from both sides of the issue suggest that sentencing consistency would better serve the public good.

James Fell, senior program director for the Alcohol, Policy and Safety Research, told the Free Press that studies have shown that jail for first offenders is a waste of resources: "Jail is really only an effective tool if it is used as a threat to make the drunk driver comply with other orders for probation, treatment, community service or alcohol testing."

Model sentencing guidelines created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism state that first-offense sentencing policy should focus on deterrence via licensing sanctions, vehicle actions and rehabilitation, and only escalate to intensive supervision or incarceration when dealing with repeat OWI.

Some states do require mandatory jail time for first offenders, and Alaska's policy is the most severe at 72 hours. On the other extreme, Mississippi limits incarceration for a first DUI conviction to two days. But the harsh average sentences imposed in Oakland County for first offenses are an extreme rarity among local practices for enforcement of drunk driving laws nationwide.

Fighting the Worst Consequences of First-Offense OWI in Michigan

Drivers who face charges of operating while visibly impaired, high blood-alcohol content, open intoxicants in a motor vehicle or causing death or serious injury if operating while intoxicated, should discuss strategies for avoiding the toughest punishments for DUI offenders. Harsh consequences are by no means a foregone conclusion in any drunk driving case, whether the accused had a relatively low blood-alcohol level or other circumstances are present that work to a defendant's advantage.

The same basic legal principles are in play for all adults charged with drunk driving, including those that govern the procedures followed in field sobriety, breath and blood testing. A Detroit DUI attorney can assess the police report and other evidence to help clients get a firm idea of their legal options for reducing charges or fighting a conviction. A criminal defense lawyer can also help families understand the distinct differences in juvenile crimes cases involving underage drinking.