What you should look for when you have to retain a DUI defense lawyer

Last week I was in a DUI courtroom at the Daley Center, sitting next to another veteran DUI defense attorney.  The two of us have a combined 45 years of experience.

While we were waiting for our cases to be called, we watched as a private defense attorney stepped up on behalf of a client.  Neither of us had ever seen her before, and she seemed somewhat clueless about how to handle her client’s case.

There have always been “dabblers” in DUI court — attorneys who rarely handle DUIs but would rather take on the case instead of referring it out — but this has become an increasingly common experience.

Anyway, the other attorney turned to me and whispered, “remember the old days, when you and I knew every defense attorney at traffic court.  Nowadays, there are all these real estate attorneys who don’t have enough business, so they take on DUI cases that they don’t know how to handle.”

Recently, a judge told me the pretty much the same thing.

This all came back to mind when Maryland attorney David Benowitz shared a blog post from Reuters today.  It was entitled “Top 3 Mistakes when hiring a DUI Lawyer.”  Here they are:

  1. Lack of experience. An attorney whose practice focuses on DUI — also called DWI or OVI, among other variations depending on your state — is often your best bet. Experienced DUI attorneys know the best ways to reduce or eliminate jail time, fight for you to retain your driver license, reduce your charge to a lesser offense, and even negotiate a plea bargain.
  2. Lack of knowledge. An attorney who’s unfamiliar with DUI laws may not know how to handle the nuances of a DUI case. These may include how to challenge breath tests, blood tests, and police procedures. Traffic and motor-vehicle laws also come into play in DUI cases. That’s why knowledge about your specific jurisdiction is required: DUI, traffic, and other laws are different in each city, county, and state, and they are subject to change.
  3. Lack of commitment. Lawyers are busy people, and usually handle a heavy caseload. It’s best to hire a lawyer with whom you can connect, and who’s committed to getting you the best possible outcome. If you choose an attorney who’s too busy, your case may be largely handled by paralegals or other support staff, or — in a worst-case scenario — fall by the wayside and not get handled at all.

I would add to that list to avoid hiring someone who pleads out all of his or her cases.  I know some of these attorneys.  Once, one of them told me “Harold, I can do five pleas in the time it takes you to do one trial.”  That is not the type of attorney that I would want to hire!  You want an attorney who 1) knows how to try a case and 2) will try a case if, after discussing it with you, decides that doing so will be in your best interests.  And I say that even if you think that your case is not going to trial, because a veteran DUI defense attorney will be able to distinguish between a good case and a bad one, be aware of defenses that can turn a strong case into a weak one, and will have a reputation for going to trial that may result in a obtaining a better offer.

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