Understanding the Jury Instructions

The most important part of any Oakland County operating while intoxicated trial is the jury instructions.  The jury instructions are written instructions that are read by the judge to the jury.  They consist of everything that a jury is needed to make a decision of guilt or innocence in deliberations.  Everything from the burdens of proof to the elements of the offense are included in the drunk driving jury instructions.  The judge will tell the jury that the instructions are the law, and must be followed verbatim, an extremely important concept that most inexperienced trial lawyers do not understand.

In Michigan, our Supreme Court has recently indicated that the model criminal jury instructions are now required.  In the context of a drinking and driving case, there are a multitude of instructions that cover operating while intoxicated charges.  In order to give our clients the best chance of winning their jury trial, it is imperative that we discuss the jury instructions throughout the trial with the jurors.  Many times, OWI trial lawyer Jim Amberg will have the jurors promise that they follow the instructions, no matter what they say, then cash in that promise at the end of the trial when he shows them the drunk driving instructions.

The Michigan OWI instructions include a very specific test for the element of being under the influence that the jury must apply in deciding whether the people have met their burden.  Instruction 15.3 states that "the test is whether, because of drinking alcohol, the defendant's mental or physical condition was significantly affected and the defendant was no longer able to operate a vehicle in a normal manner."  This is extremely important as many times the defendant's driving is perfectly fine and thus they are not guilty of this definition of being under the influence.

How a Trial Works

One question that our clients all have when going into a drunk driving jury trial is how does it work?  In Oakland County, any trial starts with selecting a jury.  In misdemeanor cases, a jury consists of six citizens, while twelve jurors are chosen in felony cases.  Additionally, the courts will generally chose at least one alternate juror, because sometimes a juror cannot proceed at trial.  The jury selection process is called voir dire and consists of the Court, People, and Defendant all having a chance to ask questions to potential jurors in order to find a group of jurors who can be fair.  Some judges in Oakland County do not allow the prosecutor and defense to ask the jurors questions and instead will conduct all of the question asking themselves.  Judge Small of the 48th District Court is a good example of this.

After a jury is selected, the parties give their opening statements.  The purpose of the opening statement is for the defendant or prosecutor to inform the jury of what they believe the evidence will show.  For the defendant, giving an opening statement can either happen in the beginning of the trial, or after the prosecutor presents their entire case.  Additionally, although it rarely happens, a defendant can choose to not give an opening if they don't want to.

Once openings take place, the prosecutor will then present their proofs.  This basically consists of the prosecutor calling witnesses, normally cops, and having them testify about what they think happened.  Additionally, the prosecutor will introduce evidence of things like test results through their witnesses.  The defendant is allowed to cross examine every witness that is called by the prosecutor.

After the prosecutor rests their case, then the defendant can request that the court find in their favor.  This is called a motion for a directed verdict.  These are rarely granted, but should be requested in every trial regardless.  

The defense then has the opportunity to present their case.  Many times we don't present any witnesses and the trial then moves to closing arguments.  Other times our clients will testify at this time.  Additionally, if there are any defense witnesses such as lay or expert witnesses, this is the time they testify.

After the defense rests, the trial then proceeds to closing arguments.  This is the time where both the prosecutor and defense argues to the jury what they believe the evidence means.  The prosecutor begins with their closing, then the defense conducts theirs, and then the prosecutor gets a final chance to get back up and have the last word.

After this is concluded, the judge will read the jury instructions and after that, the jury deliberates and attempts to reach a verdict.

 

Hiring an Expert Witness

Every drunk driving trial lawyer has their own strategy for conducting a drunk driving jury trial.  Some choose to bombard the jurors with expert witnesses and a resuscitation of the science involved in drunk driving cases.  The problem with this strategy is that most jurors are skeptical of defense experts and these same jurors lose interest in the science within seconds.  Additionally, when a defense expert is placed on the witness list, the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office prosecutors will have their own expert there to contradict anything the defense expert says.  And our experience is that people tend to always believe the State expert.  What is left is an upset client who spent a ton of money on an expert, legal fees, and still gets found guilty.

Although there are times when an expert is necessary in order to bring forward a novel defense, in the vast majority of our trials in Oakland County, we have chose to not use experts and instead simply get the testimony we want the jury to hear through the witnesses of the prosecutor.

Trial Overview

A drunk driving jury trial in Oakland County is the most difficult type of trial to win.  Reasons for this include that unlike most other cases, jurors come into the courthouse hating drunk drivers.  Many times simply hearing the score of the breath test or believing an officer's tale is enough for most lawyers to tell their clients that they should plead guilty as charged.  The problem is that most "criminal defense" lawyers have never actually conducted a drunk driving jury trial, let alone actually won one.  Do you want a lawyer whose never even conducted an OWI trial in Oakland County?  Do you think that lawyer is going to have any respect or clout when it comes to the prosecutor's decision about what to do with your case?  Would you hire a doctor whose never done a heart transplant to take yours out!  The point is that you need to hire a lawyer who understands how to conduct an Oakland County jury trial who has the respect of the prosecutors and judges.