I have represented enough victims of drunk driving that I tend to be quite one-sided in my feelings about people who drive under the influence. Like you, I’m guessing, I find myself completely horrified by the idea that someone has been injured or killed because a person got behind the wheel after having too many drinks.
However, my friend Dave Suro, who is a Denver DUI defense lawyer represents people who have been charged with a DUI offense, and he constantly challenges my preconceived notions about “those people” who drink and drive. Especially when there is no victim – when the charged person is simply pulled over on the side of the road – Dave says we are all pretty hypocritical in casting aspersions on their character.
Have you EVER had one too many drinks and gotten behind the wheel?
I thought I’d share a bit of his perspective and I challenge you to keep an open mind as you read his thoughts. Have you EVER had one too many drinks and gotten behind the wheel? If you weren’t arrested, what if you’re just lucky? It’s an example of the saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” His thoughts provide a great cautionary tale that we all should heed. It truly can happen to you!
Q. Without sounding too judgmental, how do you do it? How do you represent people who get behind the wheel after drinking?
Drinking and driving is legal. Drinking too much and driving is not. And if you think about it, almost everybody drinks. Some people don’t drink at all, ever, but that is the extreme minority. Most people drink and drive, which is perfectly legal. Most of us are experts at that: we have a drink when we are out with friends and we know how to handle ourselves, we know our limits. But each of us has also probably made a mistake and thought we were OK to drive and the next day we realize we weren’t ok.
The point is, this happens regularly to average decent people who make mistakes. As a DUI defense lawyer, I’ve represented principals, lawyers, teachers, stay-at-home moms, and CEOs of companies. Anyone could get charged. If you haven’t been charged, you’re just lucky.
Q. I think the majority of people are under the impression that, if you’re arrested for DUI, you must be guilty. There are so many tests for it. Want to comment on that?
Plenty of people are not guilty yet still find themselves arrested and charged. There is a presumption of guilt by law enforcement (and sometimes jurors) especially when there are priors, and my experience is that this attitude sweeps up many completely innocent citizens.
Tying into the theme of our ubiquitous use of alcohol, that equals an awful lot of innocent citizens living through the horror of being an innocent person forced to defend themselves against the entire power and weight of government. So it’s not just having empathy for those who’ve made mistakes: when doing these cases, you have to be willing to defend people against the possibility that the government will pursue an innocent person with the same zealous vigor they would use against someone who is actually guilty.
Q. It must be difficult to represent these people because, I’m guessing, the jury is against you from the get-go.
It’s true. Our entire legal system and our culture are stacked against my clients. Even the witnesses against my clients, usually police, are professionally trained to testify against them. My job is to defend someone who made a mistake without alienating the jury.
When there is a victim, it is a horrific tragedy. But when there is no victim, our society still turns these people into public pariahs. But if you ask people how many times they have driven after having too many drinks… well, everyone has done it. So how do we leap to judgment on others so quickly? The answer is: we turn them into pariahs because it separates us from them. So, half of my job with a jury is to challenge people and suggest that this is conduct that you engage in!
Q. Do you represent people who have been arrested more than once for driving under the influence?
Yes, I do. Why? Because my first thought is, “What if they didn’t do it?” When you’ve already had a prior DUI arrest, that is the first thing the police will look for if they pull you over. If they think you’ve had one drink, they’ll take you in. When a cop walks up to the car, he already knows from your plates that you have a prior conviction. You won’t be going home.
I tell my clients that they need to have zero tolerance for being out and drinking, then getting behind the wheel, but alcohol is a part of our culture. Also, some of my clients’ first offenses were years or decades ago.
Today, I got a call from a guy whose prior was in 1991. He’s a totally different guy! But a second offense carries mandatory incarceration, no matter when your first one was. I want to make sure people understand who he is today.”
A lot of people get their DUI charges 20 years apart. Maybe they got a divorce and their lifestyle totally changed. We just need to take each case and remove all the stereotypes so that we can understand the person.
Q. You mentioned that drinking is part of our culture. Expand on that and how it influences your work.
Alcohol is a part of every rite of passage in the western world: weddings, anniversaries, graduations. We can be hypocritical about that or say, “That is the world we all live in.” Again, when there is no drunk driving victim, how do we as a society cast all these DUI offenders as evil? It’s hypocritical. Really, most of us have just been lucky.
When I represent people with a second DUI, I do not think they should just walk away. That is not my goal. They should receive appropriate punishment.
My goal is to let people see that this is a person. A person with a family, a job, who does great things for community. They just made a mistake. My job is to give them that voice. Otherwise, especially for a second offense, they become a case number.”
Q. You seem to have a lot of empathy for the people you represent.
I definitely do. I don’t think you can be a good DUI defense attorney without having empathy. Everybody makes mistakes! If you drink too much and say something you regret, you can call your friend the next day and apologize. But if you drink too much and you’re pulled over, you are turned into a villain. I just don’t want people’s entire lives ruined because they made a mistake that we literally have all made at one time or another.
In a future article, I’m going to ask Dave about breathalyzers and other tests for DUI. If you have any questions about this article, please contact me at (303) 388-5304.