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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

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.

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