Last updated on November 2, 2021

Is a Court-Appointed Attorney a Viable Option to Defend an OWI Charge?

How about public defenders or court appointed attorneys versus private ones?  Are they viable options to defend an OWI charge?

A Court-Appointed Attorney Is Always a Better Option than Self-Representation 

Attorney Tafelski: The answer I usually give when I’m asked that question is, number one, it all depends upon your situation.  First of all, if you simply cannot afford to retain experienced counsel, then absolutely you’re better off with a court appointed attorney than representing yourself.  Any valuable advice you get that helps your situation is worth it, and so you would definitely want a court appointed attorney if you can’t get anything else.

Court Appointed Attorneys Do Have Heavy Caseloads and Less Time to Devote to Each Client

The downside of it is number one, there are often some that are very inexperienced in this area of the law and they’re not going to give you the same level of advice as somebody who handled hundreds of these cases.  Number two, most the time they have very limited time to dedicate towards your case.

In many courts in this area, there’ll be one public defender there for the day and they’ll represent every defendant that wants the public defender.  If this attorney is meeting you and 10 other people for the first time on that day and handling your case that day, then you can figure out for yourself, you’re not going to get much personalized attention and it’s not going to be as good of a situation as it possibly can be.

Getting the Best Result in the Beginning: You Cannot Re-do a Less than Favorable Outcome in an OWI Case

The thing that people have to remember is once something goes wrong in these cases, it’s almost impossible to fix it, so you’ve got to get it right the first time.  You’ve got to put your best foot forward and try to get the best possible result right at the beginning.

I’m not somebody who badmouths court appointed attorneys or says that they don’t know what they’re doing, but I do think if you will be better off if you can afford to retain a private attorney.  They can get to know you and they can get to know what is really going to matter to you when this case is over.

They can pay attention to the details of your case and look at the videotapes and look at them with a trained eye and be able to spot an issue if one exists, that might get you out of this problem, and it is certainly a worthwhile investment.

Interviewer: You’re saying that with a public defender, you’re not going to get a great deal of personal time with them because they see many clients?

Attorney Tafelski: Correct.

Court Appointed Attorneys Cannot Represent Clients during the Civil Component of an OWI Charge

Interviewer: Then, as I understand it, with OWIs there is a criminal side but there’s also a driver’s license consequence, which is like a civil proceeding.  Public defenders can’t even work on the driver’s license portion of your case because it’s not criminal?

Attorney Tafelski: In Michigan, the driver’s license portion only comes into play with breath test refusals.  In that case, you’re right.  That’s called an implied consent violation.  You have no right to a public defender in that because it is a civil matter.

Even though it’s very serious, it results in the automatic suspension of your license for one year and a fixed point on your record, you have no right to a court appointed attorney because it’s not punishable by jail.  It’s just a civil penalty of losing your license.

In Michigan OWI Cases, the Offense You Plead Guilty to Determines the Driver’s License Penalty

However, the actual license penalty you get if you’re convicted of an OWI charge is administratively applied just based upon what crime you plead guilty to.  For example, if you plead guilty to first offense high BAC drunk driving, which is also known as Super Drunk, once you plead guilty, the court transmits the conviction to the Secretary of State’s office.  Once the Secretary of State’s office receives record of that conviction, then they’d send you a notice telling you that because of the conviction your license is going to be suspended.

Michigan Has an Enhanced OWI Charge Known as Super Drunk That Carries Penalties Including an Automatic License Suspension

If the person is convicted of high BAC, known as Super Drunk that means that at the time of arrest they had a blood alcohol level of 0.17 or above.  Your license automatically gets suspended for 45 days where you cannot drive at all.  Then it’s restricted for the remainder of a year and you can only drive a vehicle that has an interlock device built into the car or attached to the car.

The Penalties Are Mandatorily Imposed

That penalty is not decided by the judge.  The judge has no discretion to change it or modify it or shorten it or lengthen it.  It is what it is.  It’s simply based upon what you’re convicted of, which is another reason why it’s so important that an individual has help with these cases.

If a person is arrested for a high BAC and walks into an arraignment, assuming he’s just going to accept responsibility for his actions and he pleads guilty, he may not even realize just how serious the consequences are going to be. This is because in addition to that license penalty I just described, on a Super Drunk case instead of a maximum penalty of 93 days in jail, the maximum penalty is 180 days in jail.

There are a lot of little differences that could turn into a very big deal for a person who wasn’t paying attention or didn’t have the proper help in handling his case.

It Is not advisable To “Give up” and Plead Guilty to an OWI Charge

Interviewer: Do you have clients say, “Why shouldn’t I just plead guilty and give up?”  What’s the problem with doing that?

Attorney Tafelski: There are many people who they know they were guilty and they feel like they do want to accept responsibility for their mistake.  That’s admirable in some respects, but what I usually try to tell them is that even the toughest judge in this area does not have a problem with people trying to protect themselves in the court.  They don’t have a problem when people legitimately try to defend themselves and put their best foot forward and try to minimize their punishment and minimize their charges.  That is accepted as normal and expected by the court system.

There Is No Benefit in Not Attempting to Defend Oneself from an OWI Charge

If you don’t try to make the best of it for yourself, you’re not really doing anything but punishing yourself more.  You won’t get more favorable treatment from the court because you don’t handle yourself as well as possible.

Posted in: DWI
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