Monday, December 10, 2007

Legal Eagles, Defending Drunks

I’ve never understood why the trial lawyers went after the paint companies.

I know it’s good business for trial lawyers, if not for the rest of society, to threaten an industry with lawsuits up the proverbial wazoo while claiming injuries on behalf of some poor, helpless class of humanity—in the paint case it was the millions of children who supposedly grew up munching lead paint on window sills, as if munching lead paint was a big thing to do—in hopes of settling for billions of dollars to go away and move on to the next big cash cow.

Fortunately for society, if not the trial lawyers, the lead paint cases don’t seem to have captured the imagination of judges and juries the way the asbestos issue did, and it seems that eventually the trial lawyers will have to pick another target in order to keep up their lifestyles—which, if the vacation home of one of the lead paint lawyers I know is any indication, is pretty high.

So why don’t the trial lawyers go after the alcohol companies, and do something worthwhile?

After all, the cost to society of alcohol abuse trumps the innocent children munching lead paint hands-down. Ask any cop how many situations in his or her day—theft, “domestics,” auto—involve alcohol: it’s nearly all…except for those that involve drugs.

Today's New York Times reports that at least one lawyer—a government prosecutor in Phoenix—is doing something interesting and worthwhile about drunk driving, the most public facet of alcohol abuse, without resorting to multi-billion dollar lawsuits:

A conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol is something many people try to conceal, even from their families. But now the bleary-eyed, disheveled and generally miserable visages of convicted drunken drivers here, captured in their mug shots, are available to the entire world via a Web site.

The hall of shame is even worse for drunken drivers convicted of a felony. A select few will find their faces plastered on billboards around Phoenix with the banner headline: Drive drunk, see your mug shot here.

The Web site and billboards, which began last month, are the brainchildren of Andrew P. Thomas, the county attorney here…

—New York Times

This innovative, low-cost way of publicly holding individuals responsible for their actions has, naturally, offended certain people who hate simple, low-cost ways of dealing with problems—namely the lawyers who defend drunk drivers in court.

“I just can’t believe he’s doing it,” said Mark Weingart, a defense lawyer in Tempe who has advised hundreds of people facing charges of driving under the influence. “Besides the fact that it is in bad taste, D.U.I.’s usually involve somebody with no criminal history. The downside to this person being published on the Web site is tremendous. I don’t see the point. Why doesn’t he put sex offenders up there?"

How “bad taste” enters the equation is beyond me. For a drunk who’s killed or injured or risked death or injury to an innocent bystander by virtue of getting behind the wheel of a car, “taste” seems to be the last thing to worry about.

Nor do I grasp the distinction between a convicted drunk driver with a criminal history and somebody without one. I know elected officials who've had DUIs wiped off their records, thanks to pals in high places, and regard them as something to be hushed up, not as a symptom to be dealt with.

Should the ability of people like that to drink and drive without severe consequences lead to an innocent’s death, their lack of a criminal record will mean very little to the families on the other side of the court room.

Presumably Mr. Weingart would rather see his own advertisement—of the “1-800-LAWYER” kind—up on the billboard than his last client’s mug. Me, I’d rather know which of his past clients are still on the road before I meet them there unexpectedly.

And while he's at it, put the sex offenders up there too.

Jeff Matthews
I Am Not Making This Up

© 2007 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews' recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice, nor is it a solicitation of business in any way. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.


whydibuy said...

WOW, theres a lot to chew on here.

First, it seems everything old is new again. This billboard is a modern version of the scarlet letter used in olden days for adulterers. And it seems like Jeff wants to see the ghost of prohibition rise once again. Sorry, people like their poisons and they won’t be totally denied as demonstrated by prohibition. You may be able to deny certain drugs but even the gov realizes that a intoxicant free society like the protestants wanted who pushed through the prohibition idea is unworkable.

As for the defense attorney, hes just doing his job defending drunk drivers as strongly as he can. I agree citing taste is a strange idea.

But, if hes referring to the criminal law about a defendant doing his sentence and thus his debt to society fulfilled he has a point. Putting people on billboards and websites constitutes a LIFE sentence which they were not given. The criminal system in this country is considered a rehabilitation one where you do your sentence and are then free to start again. Jeff thinks continual punishment is a good idea for drunks. OK. How about murders who get out after serving 8 years of a twenty year sentence? Or burglars or car thiefs or whatever?

Sorry but this post opens up a huge debate on crime and punishment and having the punishment fit the crime. As for me, I’m opposed to life sentences imposed by outside parties acting as judge, jury and executioner.

geerussell said...

I don't know high elected officials and people with pull who've had dui convictions and their consequences wiped away. I do know ordinary people who've had the bad judgment to commit a dui offense and the consequences were indeed severe.

In most states a first time dui offender faces anywhere from $5-10 thousand dollars in financial consequences Add to this drivers license loss or restriction, drug and alcohol testing, months of probation, community service and possibly some days in jail and you have the typical menu of dui consequences.

This of course all comes for a simple traffic stop dui. If injury, accident or property damage are involved, penalties escalate accordingly.

Now we're adding a scarlet letter as the cherry on top? That's going overboard.

BlackLab said...

While we're building billboards for incorrigibles, I propose throwing mortgage brokers, a few Moody's credit analysts, a handful of construction lenders, homebuilders, and a smattering of structured finance guys into the mix.

Len said...

lybohetqSince we don't seem to be able to convince some people that they are in fact personally responsible for their own actions, why not put their picture in a public space for all to see.
Short of shooting them on the spot, a little public embarassement might help them get the message.
Adding a "scarlet letter" might be just the thing to help them understand that we all have a certain degree of responsibilty to one another.

eagles242 said...

drunk drivers? child molesters? why stop there? tax cheats..........adulterers........litle league embezzlers..........thieves.......jaywalkers...........abusive priests...........arsonists.......drug dealers...........rapists.......and on and on.............let's just bring back Savak and have Saturday night executions.............second thought with the expanding market an investment in outdoor adverising is warranted......guess we need a moral dictator to determine who gets legal representation..........yeah, right

Johnny said...

If the billboard doesn't work, how about this...

Jeff Matthews said...

Convicted rapists, drug dealers and abusive priests are different from drunk drivers: they go to jail.

Drunk drivers generally don't.

Arrested on a DUI, they fight the charge, not their problem. Well-paid lawyers--enablers--get them off.

The drunk will drink again, and will drive drunk again. They don't hold themselves responsible. They hide their disability. They resist pressure to change. They do not voluntarily stop drinking.

Then, when they drink and drive, and sometimes kill people, society is shocked and outraged.

If a billboard can change behavior, let's try it.

Michael said...

"Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness." - James Thurber

How about doing something useful, like advertising on a massive billboard the phone number/website for a designated driving organization like: if you don't have an organization like 'bout using that billboard cash to start one?

Mike Q

Charles Butler said...

As far as I know, a roadside breathalyser test, which is suffecient grounds for a DUI charge in most places is not a test for intoxication, but of blood alcohol content. Worse, you're probably mistaken to think that raising the stakes might seriously have an impact on incidence. That reasoning would have given the world a murder rate approaching zero centuries ago.

Personally, I feel that, given the inherent physical and mental frailties of the species, merely giving us the possibility of hurtling along the surface of the earth in a few thousand pounds of steel is, at the very least, ill considered.

wcw said...


Lead is really, really, really, really bad. For just one recent news article on how miserably bad lead is, cf

Now, weed and liquor aren't good for people either, but compared with the societal benefits to be had from lead abatement, a pure and fantastical prohibition of all addlepating substances pales in comparison.

I am surprised that I have to explain this to you.

geerussell said...

"Arrested on a DUI, they fight the charge, not their problem. Well-paid lawyers--enablers--get them off."

This cliche simply isn't true and I can't help but notice the Times quote you cited didn't mention anything about people beating the rap.

DUI laws in most states are now so strict, the punishments so mandatory that no amount of lawyering is going to get you off. So much of due process has been stripped away by current DUI laws you've got a better chance of walking away from a murder rap than a DUI.