I have been practicing law since 2001, most of my trial experience is in the 86th district court. As a Traverse City criminal lawyer, I grew up in the 86th District Court and believe I know this court system well. I have represented over 800 clients in the 86th District Court.
The Big Three Crimes in the 86th District Court
In my opinion, there are three types of cases that are the most common in the district court. District court is the lowest trial court in Michigan and the criminal jurisdiction of this court is misdemeanors.
Drunk Driving Cases
Drunk driving first and second offense make up a large part of the 86th District Court docket. A first offense DUI in Traverse City is not all that different than in other counties. In some rural counties, a defendant on probation after a DUI conviction may not even be required to report to a probation officer. The 86th District Court does require a DUI defendant to report for probation with a DUI first offense conviction. Is it possible for a person to receive jail time on a first offense? Yes, it is possible. If there was an automobile accident associated with the offense there could be jail time as part of the defendant’s sentence. If the client has a criminal history, then there is always a chance that the client will be sentenced to jail. Litigating a DUI is involves a balance between the client’s alleged bad driving and their breath or blood evidence. It is also possible to litigate a DUI based on an unconstitutional traffic stop.
Sobriety court is also a large part of the 86th District Court. I was practicing law in the 86th District Court when Traverse City established its first sobriety court. In the beginning, the sobriety court was focused on treating 2nd offense DUI defendants, in other words, people already charged with a crime already within the district court. Today, the sobriety court is filled with DUI third or subsequent defendants, people facing felony offense drunk driving plead down to the district court from Circuit Court. As time passed and sobriety courts gained notoriety, the state of Michigan passed laws to standardize these courts. Some of these changes were very positive, such as providing a BAIID driver’s license for sobriety court participants. More recently, the State Court Administration Office has established a program to certify sobriety courts. To receive this certification, the 86th District Court has dramatically increased the frequency of drug and alcohol testing for sobriety court participants. Drug and Alcohol testing is a cost that adds up quickly. Unfortunately, this added cost may very well push many people who need the program right out of the program. Whether the client has the financial means to comply with drug and alcohol testing is a critical factor to consider before entering the program. The prospective client in his/her twenties, not making a lot of money or with a young family, may not have the financial means to pay for the drug and alcohol testing. This is sad and frustrating because these clients are the people defense attorneys desperately want to see succeed and become sober. Only a Traverse City criminal lawyer would know about this recent change to the 86th District court sobriety court.
In the future, there will likely be a fresh wave of operating while intoxicated cases associated with the legalization of marijuana in Michigan.
Domestic Violence Cases
Domestic violence is an assault and battery with a domestic partner. The most common fact pattern is a confrontation between fighting spouses or a parent and their child. The court always put in place a no-contact bond between the perpetrator and the alleged victim. The defendant’s family is broken up according to this bond. I wrote a blog on the hardships associated with the no-contact bond, read the blog here. A common fact pattern for a domestic violence trial is the recanting victim. There are special evidentiary rules which permit hearsay evidence to combat the recanting victim. For several years, the 86th District court and the local Prosecutors aggressively pursued minor or minimal Domestic Violence cases. At one pointed there was an Assistant Attorney General assigned to the local prosecutor’s office funded by a grant based on charging and prosecuting domestic violence cases. This combination created an environment where little prosecutorial discretion was exercised resulting in nearly every case being charged formally in court. Litigating a domestic violence case is dependent on the quality of evidence alleged against the defendant. Local police forces are well trained in gathering photographic evidence and admissible oral evidence from the victim. If either of these categories of evidence is weak or lacking, a defendant should consider a trial to clear their name. Many first offense domestic violence charges are resolved with a deferred sentence under MCL 649.4a. For more information related to Domestic Violence cases please visit my criminal blog here. As a Traverse City criminal lawyer, I have lived through large swells or waves of Domestic Violence cases. I have the experience to assess and defend anyone charged with domestic violence.
In the future, Domestic Violence cases will continue to make up a large portion of the court’s docket. The current Grand Traverse County Prosecutor made her legal name through prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence cases.
Theft crimes: Larceny, Retail fraud, NSF checks
The last major group of cases within the 86th District Court are the left crimes. These crimes range from simple larceny, larceny by conversion, embezzlement, retail fraud, and writing bad checks. The theft crimes increase and decrease, to no surprise, as the local and state economy raises and dips. During the Great Recession of 2008, the was dramatic uptick in theft crimes. Most notably was the wave of crimes related to people stealing scrap metal for money.
Unregulated sentencing and how a Traverse City criminal lawyer can help
When a client decides to accept a plea offer or pled guilty as charged, the defense attorney’s role shifts from litigation preparation to seeking a lenient sentence for the client. A good Traverse City criminal lawyer knows the tendencies of the local judges. This local knowledge is very important because sentencing in all district courts is unregulated. When a defendant pleads guilty to a felony in Michigan, the Circuit court judge must follow uniform sentencing guidelines. These sentencing guidelines allow defense attorneys to provide accurate predictions to the client. In other words, most felons have an idea of the sort of jail time they will be facing if they pled guilty. In the district court, there are no such guidelines. When a client enters a plea to a charge with a maximum of one year in jail, this client could be sentenced to one year and no guidelines will influence the district court judge. Sentencing errors matter in the district court. What do I mean by sentencing errors? An error is when a defendant fails to say the right things in court or during a presentence interview with a probation officer. I have spent a lot of time in the district court and I have seen many people, people representing themselves and people represented by attorneys, shoot themselves in their foot. These people will take a contrary position to receive leniency from the court. It can be painful to watch because I know the judge will consider additional jail, just to teach the defendant a lesson.
You can watch my youtube video, “A Traverse City Attorney talks about Sentencing Errors in the 86th District Court” here.
Hard-hitting crimes according to this Traverse City criminal lawyer
Finally, there are the hard-hitting crimes in the district court. These are the crimes where the defendant must be represented by a good lawyer because the punishment or consequences will not be light. The following crimes are my watch out list: Domestic Violence second offense; OWI (drunk driving) 2nd Offense; Leaving the scene of a personal injury accident; Embezzlement $200 or more but less than $1000.00; and Criminal Stalking. The above crimes should not be handled by an inexperienced criminal lawyer or a defendant representing themselves.