A “Remembrances” column that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on December 8 showed that it isn’t necessary to be a Marty Lipton, Bill Lerach, or some other high-flier to be considered a legal pioneer.
The piece in question is focused on Richard Essen, who died in November at the age of 70. The piece said that he helped in the development of the legal specialty of providing drivers accused of driving under the influence with vigorous and complex defenses.
Patrick Barone, a Michigan attorney and editor of the legal publication DWI Journal, said that Essen was one of the first attorneys who recognized the need for aggressive defenses for people who had been charged with DUI.
The WSJ piece said that, thanks in part to a 1983 federal initiative encouraging states to adopt a more stringent approach to DUIs, laws were tightened, making it mandatory for first offenders to serve jail time and have their licenses suspended.
Essen, whose DUI defense practice was based out of Miami, Florida, developed strategies for defending against the new laws by filing reams of pretrial motions challenging police conduct and accuracy of breathalyzers.
William Head, an Atlanta, Georgia attorney specializing in DUI law, called Essen “the king of pretrial motions.”
The tales the story provides show an image of an aggressive and unapologetic advocate. In one case in 1983, Essen defended a driver whose car had overturned after a night of drinking, resulting in the death of a passenger. The driver’s blood-alcohol content measured to be 0.13 percent. However, Essen successfully had the charges thrown out when he showed that the nurse who had drawn the driver’s blood had an expired nurse’ license.
The WSJ piece reported another case in which Essen raised doubts about a police officer’s ability to distinguish the odor of alcohol from that of a client’s medication. In another case, he successfully argued that a client had been coerced because police refused to allow him to use the restroom until he submitted to a coordination test.
Not surprisingly, Essen was blistered by drunk-driving awareness groups as a result of his aggressiveness. Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candy Lightner once accused Essen of “trying to undo everything we’re working for.”
Former Dade County DUI division chief prosecutor Stephen Talphins said that in response to such challenges as those Essen provided, the county changed its procedures for how DUI cases were handled, including beefing up training and bringing in updated breathalyzers. He said, “Guys like him forced us to elevate what we were doing to a much higher level.”