Contrary to Hollywood’s depiction of life, the “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense is not often employed by defense attorneys these days, and even less so in drunk driving cases. But one recent instance has come up where a jury almost accepted an insanity plea defense to a drunk driving charge. Almost, but not quite.
Shane Van Laanen, a 55-year-old resident of Iron Mountain, was driving in a neighboring county when he was pulled over for speeding. The officer noticed signs of intoxication and administered a roadside sobriety test and a breathalyzer test. Due to his seven prior drunk driving offenses, Van Laanen was restricted to a BAC of .02. However, his BAC reading on that night registered at .12.
Iron Mountain is a Michigan city which lies right on the border of Wisconsin. Because Van Laanen was on the Wisconsin side of the Menominee river when he was pulled over, the jurisdiction fell to the local police on the Wisconsin side. As a result, he was tried in the Florence County Circuit Court.
While Van Laanen did plead no contest to the two underlying charges, a jury was selected to hear the insanity defense portion of the trial. The jurors decided that at the time of Van Laanan’s drunk driving arrest, he did in fact suffer from a mental disease, in this case severe depression, but it did not prevent him from knowing that driving while intoxicated is against the law.
Lauren Stuckert, a Milwaukee lawyer who specialized in drunk driving defenses, has estimated that the insanity defense has been raised in fewer than six cases, presented to a jury even less than that, and has yet to even succeed once.
According to Van Laanen’s attorney, Michael Scholke of Iron Mountain, MI, experts for both the prosecution and the defense had testified that his client’s depression could legally be described as a mental disease or defect, which should have been sufficient for the jury to decide in his favor.
If the jury had found Van Laanen not guilty because of insanity, he would have been committed to a state hospital for treatment, until it was determined that he was not a risk to the public.