When a Death Occurs: The Ultimate OWI Charge

No driver would choose to put him or herself in the position of being in an accident, much less an accident which results in the death of another driver. Yet people die every year in auto accidents. Some accidents are attributable to road conditions, weather, or the onset of a sudden hazard or other unexpected cause. The driver of a motor vehicle can be operating safely and cautiously and still be involved in an accident causing death. Generally, the public is sympathetic or at least understanding when an accident occurs in this manner.

However, when the accident stems from one of the driver’s being intoxicated either by drugs or alcohol, it changes the dynamic. Michigan’s drunk-driving laws have followed the national trend of continuously lowering the level of intoxication deemed to be safe when operating a motor vehicle. From a legal level of .15% BAC (Blood Alcohol Level) in the 1970’s to the current .08% BAC that is nationally recognized, drinking and driving is a universally acknowledged hazard factor for drivers and accidents. The recent ‘Super Drunk’ law now gives the prosecutor enhanced penalties for pursuing intoxicated drivers whose BAC is above .15%. Any alcohol-related traffic citation is a serious matter and creates problems for any driver facing these charges. Michigan provides for harsher penalties when an intoxicated driver has a minor in the vehicle with him or her.

Repeat offenders have very serious problems when it is a second arrest. It can result in the revocation of driving privileges and a long, complicated process in getting those privileges back taking years to complete. A third arrest in a lifetime will result in felony charges, a minimum 5 year revocation of driving privileges and term of incarceration of up to 5 years.

What makes an alcohol related arrest more complicated is when the intoxicated driver causes an accident that injures the other driver or passenger of the other vehicle. It becomes progressively more difficult when it is a serious injury or the person injured has a special status (such as being a child, pregnant mother, elderly person, etc.). The ultimate price that victims pay is when they die in such accidents. In Michigan, 264 people died in 2010 died as a result of drinking and driving accidents (also known as alcohol –related fatalities). This presents challenges to all parties concerned.

Defendants in an OWI Causing Death Case

All defense attorneys take an oath to zealously represent their clients and seek the best outcome for them. There is scientific evidence that must be reviewed. There are witnesses to be interviewed and vetted for hearings and a possible trial. After performing all of this due diligence, the conclusion may be that there is no viable defense to the charge.

A defendant in this case finds him or herself in a terrible position. Michigan law prescribes a 15 year felony for OWI Causing Death. Usually there are related charges including Driving While License Suspended Causing Death (also a 15 year felony) and a litany of other related misdemeanors and felonies. All of these convictions result in lengthy prison terms.

In the eyes of the victims, the courts and law enforcement, it is the defendants’ actions, their drinking and their choice to drive which led to the death. The reason they got behind the wheel is immaterial. The fact is they did so and when an accident happens and someone is killed, they are responsible. This phenomena draws out feelings of guilt, anger, confusion and a number of practical of concerns such as what happens to my home, my children, my job, etc . . . . This person may be a first offender or a habitual offender with multiple infractions.

Stages in Accepting the Facts

Much like Elisibeth Kubler –Ross’s stages of death, defendants go through similar stages in realizing and dealing with the act they committed.

The first step is denial. This denial does not necessarily take the form of a verbal expression, but rather, a difficulty in fully grasping the fact that as a result of the accident, the other person is dead. Some drivers actively deny their involvement while others simply choose not to grasp the facts. When asked about the facts, it is frequently difficult for defendants to remember specifics. Frequently, the person who has been involved in the accident is sometimes injured themselves. If their blood alcohol level is very high, they will find themselves in a stupor where they do not immediately understand what happened or remember.

The second stage is anger. As they begin to realize what happened and the consequences of their actions, they become angry. They blame the other drivers or distractions in their lives. They state they were not drunk at the time and blame the police for the charges. They’re angry at the high bond they have received and all of the conditions they need to meet such as an alcohol tether and daily PBTs. They find their friends shun and avoid them altogether.

A third stage involves bargaining and a slow realization of the extent of their actions and how their actions impact everyone around them. This includes their families and the victims’ families. It also includes the realization that life will not be the same. Defendants begin to look for any way out of the circumstance they found themselves in and propose difficult or impossible legal maneuvers to try and extricate them. Depending on the facts, this is not always realistic and sometimes makes the legal proceedings more difficult.

The fourth stage is depression. Being locked up in the county jail does not help ones attitude. Sometimes the driver sees the newspaper articles, knows the deceased or hears from the deceased’s family. The finality of someone else’s death begins to sink into them. Suicides are rare but continued self destructive behaviors for those accused of this charge can continue. Management of these problems is one important aspect of legal representation.

The final stage is an acceptance of this reality. Whether it results in a trial or plea, the defendant knows that at some level he or she is responsible for something based on their own actions. Many people have never had to face such challenges in their lives, especially the challenges of being a felon and killer. This acceptance sometimes culminates in a tearful apology or an embarrassed, shameful silence.

Defendants, once they understand their role and take some acceptance of responsibility, struggle with the difficulty of expressing their remorse. This comes from a lack of emotional maturity or a failure to fully process the extent of their actions. For the first time, the defendant may find him or herself recognizing the extent of problems with alcohol and their failure to act on their drinking issues or failure to acknowledge their troubles has now led to the senseless loss of life. It is very important for the attorney to help defendants understand all of these feelings as they address the matters before the court.

Families of the Defendant

Families of the defendant frequently want to do everything they can for their relative. However, in a case involving the death of a person as a result the relative’s actions, changes some of the calculations. From my own observations, the fact someone had an accident after drinking is hardly a surprise. They have been problem drinkers for some time and tactilely know or actually understand this person will go out and keep driving after having drunk. There is certainly guilt associated with that. Some family members wish they had called the police after the defendant had left in their car clearly have drunk. Other family members are in the same type of denial or, in trying to protect this person, start discussing all of the person’s positive aspects and other matters that promote a positive character picture. The guilt the defendant feels about the death is also felt by the defendant’s family. This manifests itself in a number of ways. However, it is difficult for people to immediately to want to apologize or reach out due to the adversarial nature of our justice system. This leaves a lot of unspoken and unresolved feelings.

Families of Victim

As a legal professional, it is difficult to see the victim’s family in court knowing that you are trying to do the best you can for your client. Their anger and grief are palpable and it is frequently vented to the court by their mere presence during hearings. Their family member is gone. They did not do anything different from their normal routine, they did nothing to invite or endanger themselves, other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Almost every one of the victims has a story that truly evokes the court’s sympathy and public’s concern. The more sympathetic a victim is, the more anger defendants personally face from their family. Not only do they have to face this anger, but the defendant sometimes cannot say how they feel because the state of the proceedings or just a lack of language.

Criminal Justice Concerns

The criminal justice system is designed to hold a person responsible for their actions, deterring crime and to bring some sense of justice in the form of an outcome to the entire event. This means punishment for the defendant, restitution to the victim’s family and a chance to publically express what is felt.

From a prosecutorial standpoint, there is the aspect of a crime which resulted in the meaningless death of an individual and a citizen whose death did not result from any actions of their own. OWI cases are too common in all of Michigan’s courts and most prosecutors have regular policies to address them. When someone dies, there is an expectation that something needs to be done. The defendant must be punished. The other side of that concern is the fact that not only is there the victim someone who deserves sympathy, but the defendant is not a criminal in the traditional sense. Generally, if they have any criminal record it will tie into previous drinking and driving offenses. However, this is not always the case and the courts are put in the position of likely having to sentence someone to a prison term due to the seriousness of the crime who otherwise led a normal life.

A defense attorney has the challenge of first simply getting the client to understand the gravity of his or her actions and then putting the client in a position to make decisions about their future. These decisions are frequently fraught with negative consequences no matter what they decide to do. The defense attorney also works as a buffer between his client, the prosecutor and the victim’s family. The defense has to be able to explain what’s happening procedurally to the defendant’s family and how they can support their relative at this time.

The Bottom Line

The tools needed by a defense to address the tragic circumstances in a death case go beyond the simple knowledge of the crime and criminal procedure. It also requires management of the emotional factors that are part of the process. This is where clients and their families struggle more than anywhere else. By reaching these concerns, the defense attorney can create an environment suitable to begin the recovery process along with the legal representation of the client.

Timothy Dinan is an experienced criminal defense attorney with his office in Grosse Pointe Park. He has represented the interests of hundreds of defendants charged in both felony and misdemeanor OWI matters. To discuss your matter with Mr. Dinan, contact him at 313-821-5904. You can learn more about his practice at www.timdinan.com.