This Halloween, Michigan's new super-drunk law takes effect and the ramifications could be frightening for anyone who gets behind the wheel highly intoxicated. Very tough sentences and penalties with life-long consequences will follow those who make this choice and get caught. A sobering thought.
Unfortunately Michigan has had its share of deadly accidents caused by extremely drunk drivers. Residents remember the sad 2005 deaths of Judith Weinstein, a 49-year-old mother traveling in her Honda with her two young sons. Thomas Wellinger, a 48-year-old business executive, crashed into them in his large SUV going 70 mph. His blood-alcohol content (BAC) was measured at .43, over five times the legal limit. It's hard to imagine how someone's body could survive the ingestion of that much alcohol.
According to data presented at this year's Michigan Traffic Safety Summit, Michigan arrests about 55,000 people each year on suspicion of operating while intoxicated (OWI — the name of Michigan's drunk-driving crime), and of those drivers, approximately 28,000 have BACs of .15 or higher. If roughly half of all suspected alcohol-related driving arrests in Michigan are of extremely intoxicated drivers, the new penalties would seem to make sense.
The nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) feels that the risk of death to a high-BAC driver in a single-car accident is 385 times that of a comparable sober driver.
The Big Picture
Almost all states have enacted laws that punish drunk drivers more severely for driving with extremely high levels of alcohol in their systems. Punishments vary widely across the country for these most serious drunk drivers and may include some combination of:
- Longer jail sentences
- Higher fines
- Substance-abuse treatment
- Ignition-interlock devices (breathalyzer tests installed in vehicles requiring passage to drive)
- Community service
- Significant license suspensions and restrictions
- Home detention
- Vehicle or license-plate impoundment
Most states set the BAC level at which sentences toughen between .15 and .20 — Michigan has chosen .17 as its cutoff. Michigan is a Johnny-come-lately to this crowded field of states, both nationwide and in the Midwest. Once it got on board, however, the Michigan Legislature passed the so-called Super Drunk law almost unanimously. Interestingly, they chose to impose only some of the above-listed possible sanctions.
Michigan Penalties for Super-Drunk Offenders
Michigan has made the new high-BAC conviction a misdemeanor subject to these penalties:
- One-year license suspension (after 45 days driver may be eligible for restricted privileges using a state-approved ignition-interlock device, installed and maintained at his or her own expense)
- Increased fines (from $200 to $700, normally $100 to $500)
- More jail time (potentially 180 days, normally up to 93 days)
- Mandatory successful alcohol treatment for at least one year at the offender's expense, a significant new requirement in the state
In addition, if a super-drunk offender with a BAC of .025 or higher tries to drive a car with an interlock device during the license suspension period, his or her suspension period will be doubled with the same conditions. A person under an ignition-interlock license restriction will have his or her car immobilized for driving without the device.
Subsequent high-BAC convictions will be punished under the regular repeat offender provisions.
Those who support harsher punishments for the heaviest-drinking drivers, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving Michigan (MADD Michigan), make valid points:
- The heavier penalties are only imposed on people who voluntarily drink to highly dangerous levels, so bad behavior has direct consequences.
- Drinking alcohol at these levels is no longer casual or social drinking.
- Studies show super-drunk laws reduce repeat offending.
- Public awareness of the dangers of heavy drinking and driving will rise.
While MADD Michigan supported the legislation, it had hoped that lawmakers would go even farther and require an interlock device in the vehicle of every first offender regardless of BAC level.
Critics of super-drunk laws, however, have many misgivings:
- Because most first-time offenders accept plea bargains and plead guilty to lesser offenses, the new law may not have the desired deterrent effect.
- Choice of the .17 BAC level for more severe punishment seems random — what is so much more dangerous about .17 as opposed to slightly lower readings?
- Breath-test technology is not perfect and some variation is allowed, which may allow drivers to test slightly below or above .17 with potentially dire consequences.
- Some lawmakers may have voted for this bill more to enhance their tough-on-crime images than because of its merits.
- Those charged with the enhanced crime may be more motivated to fight in court, clogging the state's judicial system.
- Increased incarceration time may further tax already overcrowded prison facilities.
- The possibility of more severe penalties may influence more arrestees to refuse alcohol testing.
Instead of prescribing such exact sanctions, giving judges the discretion to punish each offender according to the particular circumstances may be more effective, critics argue.
Legal Representation Vital
If you or a loved one is involved in a drunk-driving arrest or charge in Michigan, it is wise to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you understand your options and fight for your defense. Remember, if the incident occurs on or after Halloween of this year, your lawyer should understand the ins and outs of the new super-drunk law.