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No contest: Dani Michaels answers charge

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:46 AM

Dani Michaels, 17, was charged July 31 with committing a moving violation causing a serious impairment of body function.

Michaels quietly answered questions from attorney referee Barbara Forman Monday afternoon before formally making the plea in Ottawa County Juvenile Court.

Pleading no contest to a criminal charge is not an admission of guilt, but is treated as such at sentencing. The major benefit of pleading no contest is that it allows you to deny the crime at a later civil trial.

The no contest plea entered by Michaels was not to escape civil liability, said her attorney, R.J. Winter, on Wednesday. He said it was more of a practical means to keep Michaels from having to relive what happened that day.

“A guilty plea requires that Dani say specifically and graphically what happened,” he said. “She was emotionally unable to do that.”

The charge is a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to 93 days in jail if the defendant is charged as an adult. Michaels will not face jail time because she was charged as a juvenile.

The case is in juvenile court because Michaels was 16 at the time of the crash.

The case was moved from Kent County to Ottawa County because of Michaels lives here.

A dispositional hearing was set for Nov. 15 in front of Judge Mark Feyen. The disposition in juvenile court is like a sentence in adult court.

In the meantime, Michaels’ caseworker will prepare a dispositional recommendation report, said Paul Lindemuth, assistant juvenile services director for Ottawa County. The report will be used to make a recommendation for consequences – which could vary from probation to placement in a foster home or the county’s detention center.

Conditions of probation would likely be a combination of community service, restitution, fees and fines, and drug testing, Lindemuth said.

There is a standard list of conditions that can be pulled from if Michaels is put on probation, Winter said. But he didn’t expect it to be anything as extreme as putting her in a foster home or the juvenile detention facility.

“The goal of juvenile court is more a rehabilitative approach, rather than a punitive approach,” he said. “I anticipate some probation — specifically centered on trauma counseling." 

Community service is possible, as well as a court-ordered letter of apology. Winter said the apology had already been done informally and the families remained close.

Michael’s license will also automatically be suspended for a year or more by the Secretary of State, Winter said. That is separate from the case being handled in the juvenile court.

On top of the $125 reinstatement fee, “there will be a significant amount of money she will owe the Secretary of State” for driver responsibility, he said.

More details on this case were published in Tuesday's print edition and e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

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