Finally I decide to call one of these attorneys who calls himself Mr. DUI, and when I get him on the phone he is very supportive and promising. “The DUI laws,” he says, “have gotten out of hand. The people I represent are not criminals — they’re ordinary citizens who are often being railroaded by overly zealous enforcement of the laws. They treat people who have been arrested for DUI like lepers. A rapist or murderer gets more sympathy. You need to come in right away, and I’ll give you the best defense possible. I’ve gotten a lot of people off. I’m the only attorney in San Diego County who really limits his practice to DUI offenses. I’ve got a book filled with testimonials I can show you. I know you’re getting all sorts of letters from lawyers, but most of these guys don’t know DUI law from real estate law. When can you come in?”
Mr. DUI sounds sincere and convincing. He’s very sympathetic, which is, of course, exactly what I need, and I make an appointment to see him the following day.
This is the beginning of my interface with the DUI industry in San Diego — an industry that involves literally thousands of people from judges to lawyers, counselors, and psychologists; AA groups and drug rehabilitation programs; anti-driving/drinking organizations like MADD; Breathalyzer experts; insurance companies; state and county officials; and, much to my surprise, the San Diego State University Foundation, a so-called nonprofit organization that runs an alcohol education and counseling program for the county. This is a big-money industry, and anyone convicted of drunk driving will contribute a large chunk of his or her assets to it.
When I show up at Mr. DUI’s office the next day I find his waiting area packed, filled with several dozen people of all kinds: tall, short, fat, skinny, black, white, brown, well-dressed, sloppily dressed, men, women, young, old, etc. The DUI industry is clearly an equal opportunity operation. I am handed a clipboard and a form with various questions on it and some space to describe what happened to me. I am told to fill it out, wait my turn, at which time I will watch a video before seeing Mr. DUI himself. The secretary-receptionists are behind glass, and the whole place has more of the feel of a mini-DMV office than a law office.
After about 20 minutes, the receptionist calls my name, sits me down in a cubicle with a TV, and switches on a videotape. The video conveys a sense of what can happen to you if you get convicted of a DUI and how foolish you would be to face such a terrifying prospect without the assistance of an experienced attorney. It’s essentially a sales pitch.
There is still a wait to see Mr. DUI, but I’m told that first I would want to see Mr. Ticket, whose office was within this complex of offices. A peculiar feature of a DUI is that you need to answer to two authorities: the legal system and the Department of Motor Vehicles. You need (if you care to) to defend yourself against both. Mr. Ticket handles your case before the DMV, which schedules a hearing for you within 30 days of your arrest. The hearing is to determine whether there is probable cause to suspend your license.
I am directed to Mr. Ticket’s office while waiting for Mr. DUI. (All of this is real; these lawyers actually refer to themselves in this way. It’s on their business cards.) Mr. Ticket is on the phone with his mother, but he motioned me to sit down. I sit through about 20 minutes of a “Yes, Mom…no, Mom…maybe, Mom” phone call before he is able to hang up. “Mom likes to see how I’m doing,” he says. “She always checks up on me.”
Mr. Ticket then proceeds to lay out what is to be expected from the DMV. The police have taken my license, and most likely it will be suspended for a year unless I can show that I’m not likely guilty. (Actually, the suspension will turn out to be more than two, but more about that later.) For $299 Mr. Ticket will represent me at the hearing. However, in order to really have a chance at the hearing, he tells me, we’ll need to get expert testimony from a toxicologist, and that costs another $300. All of this sounds relatively reasonable as lawyers go, but of course, I’ve not yet seen Mr. DUI.
When I do, he is seated at the grandest desk in the grandest office in the place; the wall is decorated with photos, awards, and certificates of all kinds. During the interview, he points to one of the photographs — “That was a national DUI conference held last year in Las Vegas. Do you know, I was the only lawyer from San Diego present? It’s really amazing that these other guys represent themselves as DUI experts.” Mr. DUI tells me that the reason he gets so many people acquitted of DUI charges is that law enforcement officials at all levels make mistakes, and he pores over the files personally, looking for errors that will enable him to successfully either plea bargain the charge to a lesser offense (reckless driving, illegal lane changes, etc.) or get it thrown out altogether. He shows me a phone-book–size volume of letters encased in plastic, many of them handwritten, saying how Mr. DUI was there when this or that person needed him and saved the person from years in jail, days of anguish, fear, and trembling.
Mr. DUI, sounding like he repeats this pitch at least 20 times a day, pauses after he talks about each stage of the proceedings to be expected and asks, “Do you want to hear more?” When I finally say I’ve heard enough, he slips a contract in front of me that says his total fee, if he’s able to plea bargain the case, is $1500. I thought I had heard the figure of $900 on the videotape, and I ask him about the lower fee. “That’s for first offenses,” he says. “Second offenses are much more complicated.” I sign the paper and leave him a check for a down payment. This is the last I would see of Mr. DUI until after my case is settled, when I again make a very brief appearance in his well-appointed office to sign a long, complicated document of disclaimers freeing him from any further responsibility in my case. It must require more than a dozen of my signatures or initials on various lines.