Saturday, May 22, 2010

New York DWIs and PSI Final Thoughts

On this beautiful Ithaca morning I have a few lingering thoughts concerning NY PSIs for DWIs.

The PSI (pre-sentence investigation) report is NOT a public document. Disclosure is limited to the defendant, defendant's attorney, the judge, and the prosecutor. In fact the report is usually held by the Court and can only be viewed by counsel and not copied nor circulated. Although I have had a number of Courts send me the report for viewing prior to sentencing this is more the exception than the rule.

Probation officers act as an agent of the Court. Their role is to assist the Court (the judge) in determining a fair and appropriate sentence. In certain criminal cases (other than DWIs) a client may opt for jail time in lieu of a lengthy period of probation. In NYS generally misdemeanor probation is three years and felony probation is five years. If Probation is recommended for a DWI it is usually not negotiated to a term of jail. DWI Probation (supervision) may be in addition to a term of jail but not in exchange for a term of jail.

The Purpose for probation in DWI cases is to assist the defendant in obtaining and maintaining sobriety. This specific and necessary purpose, namely to monitor (supervise) the defendant from drinking (any consumption of alcohol) or being in the presence of alcohol. A violation of probation by drinking, being around alcohol, or being in alcohol serving establishments generally results in a six month jail term. Sobriety is the goal. Treatment, classes, and rehabilitation are the means to reach and maintain an alcohol free life. With DWI probation this is taken very seriously, and there is no wiggle room for special events or for "I did not know" type excuses.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Understanding the New York DWI PSI (Pre-Sentence Investigation) Part Two

The PSI is a process that should be taken very seriously. Your honesty with the probation department is paramount. They will be checking and verifying any and all information provided. Sometimes referred to as "collaterals," as in collateral sources of information, the contact phone numbers and references you provide to the officer must corroborate with your statements to the officer. Lying about your previous employment, drinking, and drug use will negatively affect your report. Your being accurate and truthful with the probation officer will go a long way to ensure a favorable report.

First impressions count. Showing up on time for your appointment, being clean, neat, and ready to cooperate will start your interview off on the right foot. You may be asked to go for a drug/alcohol evaluation and/or a psychiatric evaluation. In certain situations, more than one probation interview may be necessary. Also in certain situations the probation officer may feel it is important to have a one on one discussion with some of your family members prior to writing his report.

The Pre-Sentence Report contains the following sections:

1. A Cover sheet. This has the basic facts about you and the charges.

2. Prior Criminal History. Your attitude about past behavior (whether you have accepted full responsibility for your actions) and current behavior are very important. If you have pled guilty now is NOT the time to downplay your guilt or your actions. The officer will be attempting to see if you are owning up to this crime, and how you came to be in this situation.

The two most important R's are: REMORSE and RESPONSIBILITY

3. Your Social History, and current circumstances.

Stability of home life (past and present), family and friends (support), education, employment, use of drugs and/or alcohol, involvement in any treatment/rehab programs, and mental health history and counseling.

The OVERALL EVALUATION of the officer will be based upon the following:

a. Your attitude
b. Your behavioral habits, traits, and tendencies
c. Your future interests, goals, and plans
d. Your ability to cope with your past problems and your current charges
e. Your current and past associations with people (who you hang out with)
f. Your family relationships (your support system)

How STABLE are you?
What can probation predict in terms of your future behavior?
In other words are you a danger to yourself or others?
Do we have a cause to be concerned?
Do you require supervision?

At the end of every report is a pink sheet entitled, " Departmental Sentence Recommendation with Supporting Reasons." NOTE: This comes from the Probation Officer's supervisor, and not from the probation officer.

Your attorney can contact probation and provide information about you as well. In instances where PSIs are ordered I commonly provide the Court, the Prosecutor, and the probation officer with information concerning my clients to ensure the best outcomes.

In the end, being up front and candid with probation is the best strategy overall.

Understanding the New York DWI PSI (Pre-Sentence Investigation)

There is not much written online concerning the process surrounding New York State's system of determining who receives a sentence of probation for a misdemeanor DWI. It is a mystery to many. I believe as a DWI defense lawyer that uncertainty is a nightmare for those going through this process. In this blog, and the next I hope to explain the procedure in simple terms.

First, the vast majority of DWI cases as well as other criminal cases in this state are negotiated with pleas. The cases that go to hearings and trials have issues that need to be addressed by either Judges and/or Juries.

If the case is resolved with a negotiated plea then the District Attorney may or may not agree (as part of the plea agreement) to waive a PSI (Pre-Sentence Investigation). What that means is that the District Attorney may or may not be seeking a term of Probation as part of the final sentencing of the Court. He may be seeking probation for your DWI because of the results of your drug/alcohol evaluation, the amount of your BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) at time of your arrest, a DWI involving (property or people) damages, prior criminal history, prior history of drugs and/or alcohol abuse, your age, and driving history.

For all New York State DWI Misdemeanors Probation Terms are for Three Years.
NOTE: Probation could be terminated early (less than a three year term) by your attorney filing a Motion with the Judge after a period of "good" probation. "Good" meaning a period of time in which you have no problems, no committed offenses, and/or crimes, involving the use of drugs, and/or alcohol.

A PSI is where you are interviewed by the Probation Department (usually of the County's Probation Office in the city in which you live) to determine an appropriate sentence for the crime being pled to. NOTE: If you are from Out of State, Probation can not be recommended by the department because it can not be transferred to another state or country so it unlikely that probation will be part of sentencing. Unfortunately, since the Judge and DA can not give a term of probation they may seek some jail time.

Now the Court (The Judge) can still seek a PSI (Pre-Sentence Investigation) before rendering it's sentence because ultimately the Judge must agree to "the deal" struck between both sides (Counsel for the defendant as well as Counsel for the State of New York). This can add many weeks to the process between making a deal, and having a final resolution of the matter. Sometimes PSIs (and their final report to the Court) can take four to six weeks even though the actual interview usually takes less than an hour.

The way that it works is if after a final disposition (case outcome) by negotiated plea bargain if can go one of two ways:

If the Judge and DA both agree to a CD (Conditional Discharge) then there is NO Probation and no need for a PSI.


If a PSI is ordered by the Judge then Probation department will contact the defendant and set up an interview. This is a "this is your life" type of interview and review. Probation is usually for people who need supervision. Supervision normally entails being watched over with random screenings and tests for the use of drugs and alcohol. It is also likely to include some type of drug counseling/rehab/treatment program and/or mental health counseling.

In my next blog I will detail what goes into a PSI report, and how a probation determination is made.

Friday, May 7, 2010

12 Good Reasons Not to Represent Yourself for a New York DWI

I love practicing law in an area filled with many colleges and universities. Ithaca, NY has Ithaca College and Cornell University and my practice focuses on DWI defense within 50 square miles of Ithaca. Over the years I have represented many students and professors who attended SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Cortland, University of Buffalo, Keuka College, TC3, New York Chiropractic College, Syracuse University, etc. The Finger Lakes region also draws people from all over the country for college events and games, recreational activities, and conferences.

In my view, higher education and drinking seem to go together like spaghetti and meatballs. Like it or not people like to drink. I enjoy drinking. There is no law against drinking and driving just driving while impaired or intoxicated. College can be stressful because thinking is the hardest work there is. Writing voluminous papers (often expounding on topics no one cares about), reading (usually very dry material), and taking exams (that play with your mind) is not always fun times.

Alcohol is the most common, legal, and socially acceptable drug we have. Some of my best college memories involved sharing a drink with my friends and fraternity brothers. After having been through many years of college between my undergraduate B.S. in Human Biology, my Chiropractic education, and then law school I have seen the use and misuse of drugs and alcohol. Mr. Mackie may say "drugs are baddd," but I do not believe that drugs or alcohol are bad. They have their place, much like everything else.

I have had a lot of very smart clients. Some with Masters degrees, and Phds in very hard subject areas. They are as a group highly intelligent, motivated, able to research, understand, and apply knowledge at a level beyond the average person.

Which brings me to my burning question of the day,

Should these People represent themselves? In other words proceed, "pro se"?

I will start out by stating a clear and unequivocal NO! and then give you my twelve reasons.

1. If you are embroiled in something personally it is impossible to remain objective. Distance gives perspective, balance, and non emotional (clear) judgment.

2. Most even very intelligent people do not understand the legal system. Even relatively simple Burdens of proof between license issues (administrative) and criminal cases are different.

3. Many Attorneys in 2010 have to specialize and focus in particular areas of law.
The attorney that understands and spends years practicing primarily divorce law will not know how to handle even a speeding ticket let alone DWI charges.

4. Different areas of the country, state, county, city have local rules and customs.
How a Judge, Court, or Prosecutor proceeds with a DWI case in one part of the state may differ greatly by how they handle it in another part of the state. A DWI in Manhattan uses a different breath machine, the Intoxilyzer 8000 versus the Datamaster and Draeger Alcotest (State Police) in Upstate New York.

5. There are usually collateral issues (ie. license) that need to be addressed.
Dealing with the DMV and ALJs (Administrative Law Judges) at DMV hearings is another potential aspect of DWI cases that is overlooked by lay people.

6. There are often pragmatic issues that need to be thought through. How is your case going to affect an out of state license? What are the potential penalties and future ramifications to your specific job or profession?

7. If your case requires hearings, motions, and a trial what then? Are you certified in Field Sobriety testing? Are you familiar with the forensic science behind Breath testing? Have you ever cross examined a police officer? Have you ever presented evidence? Have you ever picked a jury?

8. Would you know what to look for after you obtain the police reports, breath test documents, and other discovery? Have you read many of these? Do you understand police procedures and protocols? Would you be able to pick out problems with the processing of your case?

9. Would you know what was missing from police reports and other documents?
What's not there is as important as what is there. Can you read in between the lines?

10. Is it possible for you to look over one case (your own) in a vacuum and have any insight, perspective, and/or place it on the spectrum in comparison to any other cases? Do you have a firm grasp of current DWI case law? Can you pick out the legal issues and research them? Can you spot any potential defenses?

10. Seasoned attorneys even hire attorneys to represent them and their families.
What legal background or training do you possess? Have you had any prior experience representing anyone legally?

12. Do you believe that the Government prosecutor will negotiate with you fairly, in good faith, and the same way as if you were represented by an attorney?
Do you think you are on even ground when talking with the district attorney? Does he know more about your situation than you do?

It is often said that people who represent themselves have a fool for a client, don't be foolish get the best lawyer you can afford.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Understanding New York DWI Alcohol Evaluations Part 2

When I practiced as a Chiropractic Physician (before my legal career) I was trained in the use of a psychological manual called the DSM- III (this is now the updated DSM- IV). DSM stands for The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Think of the DSM as "Abnormal Psychology for Dummies" and you have a better picture. This manual allows doctors, psychologists, social workers, addition specialists and a host of other mental health care servers to quickly look up a set of symptoms, patterns, and other behaviors and make a "potential" diagnosis or diagnoses.

As a doctor I needed to differentiate (and sometimes place a rule out diagnosis) between physical illness and psychological illness. Oftentimes patients would have a layer of psychological problems/issues aside from and in addition to their disc or nerve or muscle injury. Now the reason I bring up and explain all of this is because this manual is the "go to" guide for evaluators. As a DWI defense lawyer the manual has new significance for me and my clients.

The manual describes alcohol abuse as ANY "harmful" use of alcohol. Harmful use of alcohol can be further described as any use that causes physical and/or mental damage. We all know that alcohol by it's very nature causes brain cells to die (alcohol blocks oxygen from the brain) so an abuse diagnosis is a very common one.

Legally, Alcohol abuse merely requires education. This can often be in the form of New York State's DMV 7 week Drinking Driver Program (DDP). The Court can force compliance with treatment, rehabilitation, and education related to any plea and/or conviction. In some New York counties this must come before a final case resolution, but in the majority of others it comes as a condition of discharge with the Court (after the final disposition).

The question on everyone's mind is so where is the line between alcohol/drug "abuse" and alcohol/drug "dependence"?

Well generally the following are some of the behaviors that those dependent on alcohol may display:

1. Drinking only one type of alcoholic beverage or preferring one brand.
2. Only going to events, get togethers, and parties that serve alcohol.
3. Being able to drink more and more over time by increasing their tolerance to alcohol.

So far these first three sound like my college days or the behavior patterns of many of us, but please read on,

4. Making a decision to quit drinking and then feeling compelled to drink.
5. Drinking to help a hangover (after a night of intense drinking).
6. A compulsion to drink (feeling you have to drink).
7. Getting shaky and feeling ill if you do not drink (alcohol withdrawl symptoms).

If you become DEPENDENT on alcohol then you should seek help. These last 4 critieria indicate people that have a problem with alcohol.

If we look at what the DSM-IV states we find the following:

If you have (display) 3 of the following 7 symptoms (over the course of a year) you are classified as alcohol dependent. By the way, Alcohol "dependent" is a nice way of saying you have "alcoholism."

-You Neglect activities (giving up on your job, social, and joyful pursuits) because of alcohol,
-You drink Excessively (large quantities over long time periods) beginning drinking early to late,
-You Can not Control your drinking or cut back on drinking,
-You Keep drinking even though it is affecting you mentally, physically, and socially,
-You spend a large majority of time in activities that involve drinking alcohol,
-You get nausea, shakiness, anxiety, and sweating if you do not drink,
-You can really put it away (you have a very high tolerance).

My own personal opinion from helping thousands of people as both a Chiropractor, and as an attorney is those people with drug/alcohol problems usually know it. If they do not deal with it early and own up to it they will eventually be forced by the Court/Legal System to confront their issue with more pain and cost to them and their families in the long run.

To me there is nothing sadder than watching someone throw away their life, and their potential as human beings away due to misuse of drugs or alcohol.

Always consult with an attorney about any criminal or non-criminal charges you have pending to discuss your options and/or defenses.

I am certified in Field Sobriety and Breath Alcohol Testing, and an active member of the National College of DUI Defense (NCDD). My online materials include over 500 blog posts, dozens of articles, and over 500 informative videos on my youtube channel.

I have co-authored Strategies for Defending DWI Cases in New York, in both 2011 and 2013. These are West Thomson legal manuals on New York State DWI defense, and focus on the best practices for other lawyers handling a New York DWI case. I was selected by Super Lawyers as a Upstate New York 2013 Rising Star in DWI/DUI Defense based on my experience, contributions, and professional standing.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Understanding New York DWI Mandatory Alcohol Evaluations: Part I

In November 2006 the New York State legislature stated that ALL alcohol evaluations and screenings for DWI cases must be performed by OASAS certified evaluators. OASAS stands for Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services. You can google OASAS to find a certified evaluator and/or treatment provider in your county. Their website is very informative, and fairly easy to navigate.

Legally you must have a "screening" for alcohol abuse/dependency within 30 days of your initial appearance if you had a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of .12 or higher on your chemical breath test. A screening is merely a written test, it could even be a true/false test.

The next step up in the process so to speak is an "evaluation" for alcohol abuse/dependency within 30 days of the initial appearance if you had a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of .15 or higher on your chemical breath test. Some evaluators take one long session to perform an evaluation, while some could take up to four sessions to make an evaluation. Cost of these sessions runs about $80 to $90 per session. So one long eval might cost around $175 or four might cost up to $400. An evaluation is an "interview" with a counselor, and could (may or may not depending upon the evaluator) include a urine screen (NOTE: urine tests check for specific drugs while urine screens are general) for drugs. It is also common for the counselor to obtain "collaterals" from you. A collateral is contact information about people who know you and have seen your drinking. These people may or may not be contacted to confirm what you tell the evaluator. The theory is that people with drug/alcohol problems lie, and therefore these collateral sources would be a potential barometer of your truthfulness and/or sobriety.

The next step for the evaluator is to determine whether you are an alcohol/drug abuser and have an abuse diagnosis or you are chemical (alcohol/drug) dependent. This is a critical determination, and should never be taken lightly by anyone.

My problem (I have a great many issues with the process) with these evaluations is that they can be highly subjective. The evaluators opinions carry a lot of weight for the Court as well as the prosecutor and under the circumstances of an interview or interviews they (the evaluators) may not get the full ie. complete picture. I had one client who went to an evaluation and the evaluator decided on a year's worth of treatment for dependency because the client stated he drank more than 5 drinks at one time. BTW 5 drinks for a man or 4 drinks for a woman at one time is classified as a binge drinker. BINGE is BAD in the world of evals. Imagine if you will a year's worth of 2 to 3 times a week standing up and saying, "hello, my name is Bob and I'm an alcoholic," and you may begin to see the grim picture if you are truly a person without a problem. These sessions would be costly in terms of time and money but more than that unjust in my opinion.

In my next blog I'll discuss the differences between how counselors make an abuse diagnosis versus a dependency diagnosis in more detail.