A 12-year-old girl once wrote me a letter asking me to “stop defending drunk drivers.” I sometimes hear other people complain, either publicly or to me specifically, that someone charged with drunk driving isn’t entitled to a proper defense. I obviously don’t agree with this opinion, and wanted to take the time to explain the reasons why.
I strongly believe that every single person is entitled to a proper defense, no matter what they are charged with and no matter what the evidence against them seems to be at first glance. The law agrees with this idea, as our legal system is designed to err on the side of mercy by putting the burden of proof on the prosecutors.
The founding fathers created a government that would rather let a guilty person go free than put an innocent person in jail. Some people vocally disagree with this until they are the innocent one facing jail time. Part of my job is ensuring that not one innocent person is convicted. To do this, I must defend all defendants, even the potentially guilty ones. It is my responsibility to force the prosecution to work diligently to prove that my client is guilty.
The American Civil Liberties Union points out that DNA evidence has cleared hundreds of inmates who were wrongfully convicted. I am not comfortable with innocent men and women being jailed when proper defensive counsel could have prevented it, so I work very hard to keep this from happening. Police officers often make mistakes, and field sobriety tests are inherently subjective.
These drivers are scared, usually facing a police officer for the first time, and it may be dark. One example of the subjective nature of these tests is the “walk the line” test. Walking a straight line seems easy in the comfort of your home, but walking a perfectly straight line at night, on the side of a busy highway, with cars flying past, when you are nervous about your first encounter with an officer of the law can be almost impossible. How much loss of balance is enough for the police officer to decide you are intoxicated, even if you haven’t had anything to drink?
In addition, police officers may make mistakes because of carelessness, poor training, prejudice, fatigue, or outright corruption. Putting restrictions on defense attorneys gives the government free reign to arrest and jail anyone, anytime, for any reason.
Even for those of my clients who are guilty of driving under the influence, most are not involved in accidents where any other driver or pedestrian is hurt. Making it impossible for them to get to work and support their family by confiscating their license for an indefinite period of time does no one any good, least of all society.
This is why I work very hard to help my clients get their license back. It is expensive and can be a frightening experience for my clients to go through an arrest and a trial. It is not an easy process for them to get their license back, and most never drive under the influence again. The process has scared them into changing their ways, exactly as it should. I make no apologies for what I do and for working so hard for my clients.
There is a common misconception that defense attorneys attempt to free guilty defendants, while prosecutors and police officers try to find “The Truth.” In reality, the police officer’s job is just to find potential lawbreakers. It is the prosecutor’s responsibility to get convictions and the defense attorney’s responsibility to get acquittals. Each side is legally and morally compelled to zealously argue their side. The truth is found within this process of trial and appeal, not by blindly agreeing with one side or the other.
Russell J Matson, Attorney at Law