In Memoriam: Richard Cohen, defense attorney extraordinaire

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of DUI defense attorney Richard Cohen. He was a great lawyer and the best DUI defense attorney that I’ve ever seen. He was a great cross-examiner and loved doing legal research. He excelled at finding “technicalities” – like the moment when an officer conducted a seizure before having sufficient evidence, or a breath test device that was improperly calibrated.

Richard gave me first job out of law school and I worked with him for six years, handling DUI and other criminal defense, personal injury and the occasional divorce, paternity or other matter. In the 18 years since we parted ways, we continued to regularly meet or speak to discuss cases that we were working on and of course to catch up on each others lives.

Richard always used to say that it was a great honor whenever someone would place their trust in him to handle their case, and I keep that in mind every time I accept a new matter.

He always harped on the need for hard work. Richard grew up in Buffalo, New York and was a big Bills fan. One day in the office, he was still fuming because the night before he saw a baseball playoff game on tv, and Jim Kelly, the Bills’ quarterback, was sitting in the stands. “He should be home preparing for his next game, not out at a baseball game.” I said, “Its Tuesday, all the players get the day off!” That didn’t matter to Richard. If the player had been home, he’d have more time to prepare and maybe get an insight that would make a difference the following Sunday. That was the way Richard thought. He never wanted to lose at trial because he hadn’t planned and prepared for every eventuality. And you can’t plan and prepare if you are out having a good time.

Richard had been a professor of special education before deciding to go to law school. He was a State’s Attorney in Lake County, then went to work as an insurance defense attorney for Stern and Rotheiser, an insurance defense firm in Chicago. This is where he originally made his reputation, saving his carrier from potentially large verdicts in the Cook County Law Division. He then switched over to plaintiff’s work, at Kugler, De Leo and D’Arco, which became Kugler, Cohen and Sammarco, and then established his own firm, Richard Cohen & Associates.

Here are just a few of Richard’s highlights:

All Illinois DUI defense attorneys will be familiar with the Boomer case. This is a case from DeKalb County that Richard won, both at the trial court and on appeal. Mr. Boomer was found in a ditch about 15 feet from a motorcycle. At the hospital, the arresting officer tried to get consent for a blood draw, based solely on the accident and an odor of alcohol on Mr. Boomer’s breath. The trial court found that the officer lacked probable cause for the arrest and the case was upheld on appeal.

Another memorable moment for him was when he sued the then Cook County State’s Attorney, Cecil Partee, in a paternity suit on behalf of a mother and her child.

A case that Richard remembered fondly was one where the police went to a suspect’s apartment and claimed to have seen contraband through the slightly opened door, thus allowing them to enter and conduct a seizure. Richard had photos proving that the officer could not have seen what he claimed he saw from where he stood at the doorway. The case was before Judge Nicholas Pomaro in Rolling Meadows. Judge Pomaro, now retired, is blind. That didn’t stop Richard, even though his case depended on demonstrating that the contraband was out of the officer’s line of sight.  He had the witnesses testify to what was on the photos, and the Judge ruled in his favor.

More recently, Richard had a case in Bridgeview where his client blew around twice the legal limit. As the case progressed, he would call me frequently to run his ideas past me. To my way of thinking, this was the type of case to take before a jury. But Richard thought otherwise. He felt that the breath test was not properly calibrated, and that a judge would agree. He spent months working up his theory, and preparing his cross-examination. He won the case, and as he was walking back to his car, a law student, who was interning with the State’s Attorney’s office, ran up to him to ask him how he achieved this amazing result. Richard told me that this case was probably his finest moment, and if he never tried another case again, that would be fine. I’m not sure if it was his last trial (he did at least one successful Motion to Suppress after that), but it was one of his last. We were just talking about it again last month.

Of course, the biggest moment of his life was when his son was born.  I will never forget Richard talking about how everything for him changed the instant he first saw his son Rennie.  He was a devoted father, and I know he was very proud to see his son enrolled in his alma mater, Indiana University.  I wish he had a few more years to see his son graduate and become the accomplished man that I am sure he will become, but as life often cruelly reminds us, each day is a gift and we must cherish the few days that we get to have.

Richard, you were a hard person to work for, but I am glad that I did and I will miss you very much.

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