Fair shot at a new life

 Sobriety Court deals with second-offense drunk drivers

By Kelle Lynn
Grand Haven Tribune

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (AP) — When the first eight participants of the 58th District Court Sobriety Treatment Program walked through the doors of a Grand Haven courtroom last month, they were met with a warm welcome by Judge Craig Bunce and an introduction to the program’s team members.

Bunce listened closely to the progress being made by the first participant that was called to the bench for the specialty court that specifically deals with second-offense drunk drivers.

“We take your sobriety seriously, and we want you to take your sobriety seriously, then we all win in the end,” the judge replied.

Bunce said he has seen a lot of drunk drivers come through the courts in the one year that he has been a judge. He previously served as an assistant prosecuting attorney in Holland for several years.

Bunce was also a part of the Sobriety Treatment Program in Holland, which offers second-time drunken driving offenders an alternative to a year in jail. He had a strong desire to bring the program north.

“The reason I wanted to bring sobriety court to Grand Haven is a fairness issue for county residents,” Bunce told the Grand Haven Tribune. “Holland has had the sobriety courts running for several years and we took individuals from the Grand Haven area into our court, but it’s not an easy fit since sobriety court is an intense relationship-building program.”

Bringing the treatment program to Grand Haven opens the door to a number of northern Ottawa County residents who may not be able to travel to the Holland program.

“It’s a win-win for the county,” Bunce said. “I’m glad our county leaders see the benefits of the program.”

Participants who apply and are accepted into the program must agree to random around-the-clock spot checks by probation officers, daily drug testing, community service work, mental health counseling and alcohol monitoring devices. But the program — which can last up to two years — can give them a fair shot at a new life.

“There’s a lot of people out there who need help,” Bunce said. “There are a lot of people who haven’t been told that, if you work at this, we’ll work alongside of you. So, many people I’ve seen come through have been told throughout their entire lifetime they are worthless and won’t amount to anything. With a little positive reinforcement, encouragement, relationship-building, accountability, and having people understand there are swift and sure consequences for your behavior, we are going to be there to help you — if you want to reach out and ask for help.”

Joe Legatz has been a criminal defense attorney for 46 years and is the first defense attorney in a specialty court setting in Ottawa County. He was involved in the Adult Drug Treatment Court at the circuit court level that deals with felony cases involving drugs and alcohol. Legatz passed the baton to another attorney and joined the newly formed sobriety court team.

Legatz is not there to give individual legal representation, since participants aren’t represented by an attorney and are one-on-one with the judge. His role is to make sure participants are treated fairly and properly, and their rights are respected.

“I know, from my research in reading, that to change a habit and behavior pattern often takes several tries — not one or two, but many — so you don’t give up on people,” Legatz said.

Ottawa County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney John Scheuerle started practicing criminal and family law in Grand Haven in 1989 and joined the prosecutor’s office in 2000. As a member of the sobriety court team, he performs the initial screening by reviewing the applicant’s criminal history.

“I’m really happy that (County) Prosecutor Ron Frantz assigned me to this project,” Scheuerle said. “I’m looking forward to working with both the team and the participants.”