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MADD AND MADDER
Todays DUI Defense Bar Is More Focused and Aggressive Than Ever
BY TERRY CARTER
The tremendous success of Mothers Against Drunk
Driving and other groups in their campaigns for tougher drunken driving
laws and increased law enforcement has led to an inevitable backlash.
It comes in the form of a highly specialized, sophisticated and aggressive
defense bar that specializes in representing drivers charged with
driving under the influence.
Consider the career of Miami-based Richard Essen, who for more than
20 years did a wide range of criminal defense work after starting
his law practice in 1963. Then, in the mid-1980s, he began to specialize
solely in DUI defense. His small law firm rapidly grew to 18 lawyers,
doing DUI work exclusively.
DUI was hot, thanks largely to MADD, which launched its highly successful
campaign in 1980. Tougher laws and stepped-up enforcement brought
a 41 percent decrease in alcohol-related traffic deaths between 1980
and 1994, with a flattening out of the numbers since then.
Toiling in what had been a side-dish of a practice area, Essen was
catapulted onto the national stage, interviewed on Donohue,
60 Minutes, Geraldo, the morning shows, the Wall
Street Journal and dozens of other media outlets. His firm was
handling 3,000 cases a year.
Now, hes down to seven lawyers, and the caseload has dropped.
Not that the specialty has dried up. "There are just so many
attorneys out there specializing in DUI cases," Essen says.
But Essen is doing just fine, charging $10,000 for a first-offense
DUI case. And he claims a success rate of better than 99 percent in
this challenging mix of law and science. Some DUI lawyers compare
their work to tax and bankruptcy practice because of the demands in
keeping up with changes in the law.
"Thats true, and particularly so in the past five or so
years," says Steve Oberman, a Knoxville, Tenn., lawyer who heads
the DUI Advocacy Committee for the National Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers. "A lot of lawyers across the country have started
devoting their practices solely to DUI defense."
It tends to be a passionate bar. Many believe
there is too much reliance on the subjective determinations of often
ill-trained police officers and blood-alcohol tests that are often
questionable. And these lawyers make their living trying to prove
"Ours is a unique field because a lawyers job is usually
to blow smoke and create reasonable doubt," says Lawrence Taylor,
one of Californias more successful DUI lawyers. "Defense
attorneys are expected to do that, but what I find nice about DUI
work is that we get to wear white hatsthough maybe not in the
eyes of a judge or jury or MADD. But were trying to find the
In 1995, Taylor and some other prominent DUI lawyers around the country
formed the National College for DUI Defense Inc., based in Houston.
The mission statement
for the 400-member group, which holds an annual seminar at Harvard
Law School, declares that more innocent people are convicted of DUI
than any other crime.
At Taylors Los Angeles-area firm, specialization
goes beyond the eight lawyers. The firms Web site, www.duicentral.com,
is loaded with information and links concerning DUI cases. The staff
A forensic toxicologist
who is a former supervisor of DUI testing for the Los Angeles County
Sheriffs crime lab.
A former hearing officer for the California Department of Motor
A former 20-year California Highway Patrol officer.
A former Santa Ana police officer who was on that departments
DUI Task Force.
"I expect that all this is in response to
the laws that have been changed over the past 20 years, thousands
of laws to help in the fight against drunk driving," says Karen
Sprattler, national policy director for MADD. "And I imagine
lawyers are able to take advantage of that as a lot of people are
exposed to the courts for the first time and need assistance navigating
"Obviously these people have rights, but
were concerned that when some of these lawyers help
their clients beat DUI charges they may be removing the opportunity
for them to get help for chemical dependency."
DUI lawyers argue in turn that most DUI cases
involve first offenders. Many involve borderline blood-alcohol levels
measured by tests that are often not accurate, they say. "When
someone obviously has an alcohol problem, we wont take the case
unless they commit to long-term treatment," says Essen, the Miami
Still, the DUI bar tends to be combative. Atlanta lawyer William C. Head, another founder of the National College for DUI Defense Inc., wants only the most aggressive lawyers linked to his Web site which offers referrals to DUI lawyers in various states.
"Most members of the college regularly try
cases rather than plead guilty," Head says. "But all the
people on my Web site are handpicked and have reputations for fighting
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