My Last D.U.I.
The catchy title has perhaps caught your attention and you are expecting to read a confession of my past sins involving Driving Under the Influence, i.e., drunk driving.
Your expectation is partially correct, but not in the way that it first seems. This is not about me drinking. It is about me defending drunks as an attorney.
When I was in law school, I prepared to be a trial lawyer. In order to get into courtrooms, I took Civil Trial Practice, Criminal Trial Practice, Legalaid Internship, Moot Court, clerked for a judge, and spent two summers working for a prosecutor, including trying real cases under the supervision of licensed attorneys. My first trial in that office was a D.U.I. I won. It wasn’t that hard. After all, proving alcohol content is science, testing blood or urine of the defendant.
So, when I graduated and passed the bar, I had courtroom experience, particularly with criminal cases. Although I was hired by a good firm that specialized in insurance defense, I was allowed to also accept appointments to defend people charged with crimes, which, by the way, is the opposite of prosecuting such cases. I knew the drill, as they say. I knew how the prosecutors handled the cases, but now I was on the other side.
Our law office was across the street from the jail and the adjacent courthouse. Very convenient. A judge would call to tell me I was appointed in cases where the public defender had a conflict, such as a robbery with multiple defendants. I would walk over to get the paperwork and visit my new client to whom I had been assigned. I felt like a real lawyer. Oh, I finally was.
I also started getting clients who actually picked me and hired little old me. Among those clients was a young man named Clarence, who had been charged with a D.U.I. He was about my age. Since the scientific test for alcohol content in his blood established that he was over the limit and was hard to overcome, I focused on whether there was probable cause to pull him over in the first place. We did not roll over. We did not cop a plea. Clarence entered a “not guilty” plea. We set it for trial. I was a vigorous advocate. I thought we had a chance to win at trial.
I was gearing up for trial when something bad happened to poor Clarence. Those cops were out to get him. They pulled him over again. They arrested him for D.U.I. again.
The prosecutor agreed to dismiss the first case if Clarence would plead to the second D.U.I. as a first offense. They offered probation. It was a good deal since he was facing two D.U.I.s. Clarence appreciated the great job I did as his lawyer.
A few months later, Clarence showed up at my office. The cops, out to get him, had gotten him again — the third time in less than a year. Poor Clarence! The local law enforcement was picking on him. He needed me again. He needed to fight this latest unfair charge. Clarence was upset. He was sick of this “bullshit.”
I was not happy to see Clarence. I was not eager to get paid on his new case.
I told Clarence, “You are coming on a really bad day for me. Your timing could not be worse. Today, 500 miles from here, is the funeral of my best friend’s younger brother, someone I have known since he was born. He was an outstanding young man, a good athlete, president of his class. He had just gotten married. He and his wife were in a car that was hit by a drunk driver going the wrong way down an Interstate exit ramp. The young wife could not attend her husband’s funeral because she is still in the hospital, in a body cast. You did not cause this accident, Clarence, another drunk driver did, but you could have. I don’t want to try to get you off. You deserve a lawyer who will fight for you. I can’t put my heart in it. I want you to get help with your alcohol problem.”
Clarence did not get the point of what I was saying. Rather than seeing the light, he reacted like a victim himself, with no sympathy for my loss of a family friend.
Clarence said, “But you are my lawyer. You have to defend me. And, I don’t have a drinking problem. The cops are watching me.”
I said, “Clarence, if these were the only three times that liquor has touched your innocent lips, you have a drinking problem because that means you get arrested every time you drink, which has been a problem three times this year.”
Finally, I added, “I don’t have to take your case. I am not the Public Defender. I have not been appointed to take your case. I don’t want to take your case and I won’t take your case. Get another lawyer and get some professional help with your addiction.”
That is the last time I saw Clarence. He was my last D.U.I. client.
Of course, I am not saying that people charged with drunk driving should not be defended. I am saying that they should be defended by attorneys who put their hearts into the cases. They deserve someone who is not me.
I chose to write today about something that happened decades ago because of a call I got yesterday. A man called me about an incident which occurred at a bar, where he had been drinking, and the police were called, and he does not even know why he was arrested, but he was. Some other guy had assaulted him, I was told. The police obviously charged the wrong person. It sounded like the kind of bullshit that Clarence used to suffer because this poor guy wasn’t even drunk either. He just couldn’t remember exactly what happened. One minute he was talking to a woman there. The next thing he knew, he was on the floor. He thinks it was a set up. He thinks the assailant and the woman were in cahoots. He thinks she called a cab for him but he did not want to get in the cab so he resisted and somehow was harmed. He thinks it is a good personal injury case. (Right now it is just a criminal case.) If only he could remember better. He was definitely injured, he just does not know why or how some big guy ended up sitting on his chest until the police arrived and charged him with bullshit charges.
I declined the case. I couldn’t put my heart into it.
I gave him the name of a lawyer who used to be a public defender and is thus very familiar with bullshit.