Richard J. Essen -- who transformed how drivers accused of DUI were defended and prosecuted -- died Sunday in Hollywood.

Richard J. Essen | Lawyer who transformed DUI cases

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Lawyer Richard J. Essen, whose mid-1980s decision to specialize in drunk-driving cases revolutionized both the defense and prosecution of motorists, died Sunday at a Hollywood hospital.

He was 70 and suffered from cardiopulmonary disease and asthma, said his wife, Laura Ammerman Essen.

A prolific writer on DUI defense for legal journals, Essen routinely outwitted prosecutors by challenging field-sobriety test results, blood-alcohol readings, and police reports. He got so many cases dismissed that Florida updated its breath-testing equipment and revised police procedures.

A Mensa member, chess and bridge player and enthusiastic self-promoter, Essen reveled in national media coverage of his controversial practice.

Touting a won-lost record that developed its own lopsided mythology, he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and Phil Donahue shows -- often opposite angry Mothers Against Drunk Driving spokespeople -- on 60 Minutes and in People magazine, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.

The attention brought plenty of clients, convinced that representation by the Essen firm assured acquittal.

Mostly it did, though some complained to The Miami Herald in 1989 that they didn't get what they had paid for.

``We never guarantee anybody that we're going to win,'' Essen said. ``We have sort of a pat line that we tell everybody: `I'd be a liar or a fool if I guaranteed or assured you that we could win this case, and I'd be an idiot to believe it ...' It is not our philosophy to take a case and plead people guilty.''

Indeed, when former WSVN anchor Rick Sanchez, now a CNN host, decided to plead no contest in 1991 to driving under the influence and seriously injuring a pedestrian, an infuriated Essen withdrew as counsel.

Essen was already a successful criminal-defense lawyer and accomplished orator when he realized the potential in DUI cases, not just as a lucrative specialty but one that demanded intellectual creativity. He believed that drunk drivers were simply not criminals, but sick people who needed treatment.

``He used to say, `We've never met a person who said: I think I'll get drunk and kill somebody,' '' recalled Michael Cohen, who now heads Essen, Essen, Susaneck, Charnota & Cohen in Hollywood.


Essen believed that breath testing was flawed because -- as he once told The Miami Herald -- ``in Florida, it's illegal to have too much alcohol in your blood. Not in your breath . . . in your blood.''

Until he shifted focus, Essen usually handled narcotics suspects, including defendants in the famous French Connection case.

But he ``hated'' the work, said Cohen, ``so he carved out a niche in something that no one was doing. DUI was not anything that the big-time lawyers did, and they laughed at him.''

All the way to the bank.

In 1985, Essen charged what was then a hefty $2,500 for a first offense. Capitalizing on revised Florida Bar rules, he became ``the first lawyer to do direct mail to people who had been arrested,'' according to Robert ``Bobby'' Reiff, an early law partner, now a well-known DUI lawyer.

``You were permitted to send a brochure. All of a sudden we exploded from four lawyers to 19 virtually overnight. His brilliance was not only in the legal field but the marketing.''

The firm now charges $10,000 plus costs for a first offense, Cohen said.

Lawyer Jonathan Blecher worked for Essen from 1986-1992 and recalled that ``he'd meet with every client with the trial attorney and a private investigator. We'd have an hour interview, leaving no stone unturned about all the issues.''

Then he would dispatch the investigator to ``dig up information about the police officers, find out everything about the area where the sobriety test was done, and examine the testing instrument. He was very much hands on, even though he did not go to court.''

Their victories ``pushed'' police and prosecutors to treat drunk driving more seriously, he said.


Outside the courtroom, Essen was ``always laughing,'' said Blecher. ``He loved witty repartee and verbal jousting.''

Essen was a Brooklyn-born lawyer's son who grew up in Miami, won a debate scholarship to the University of Miami -- where he played tennis -- then graduated from UM's law school in 1963.

He initially joined the practice of his father, Ben Essen, and spent several years as a prosecutor in the State Attorney's office before rejoining his father.

``Ben did real estate and Richard did criminal,'' said Cohen, who headed the State Attorney's DUI division in 1983 when he met Essen ``arguing motions back and forth.''

Cohen tells one version of the story about Essen's decision to focus on DUIs.

``He represented a gentleman in a manslaughter case in Miami Lakes -- a bad accident and a friend died. Richard found out during discovery that the nurse's license to draw blood had lapsed, and the blood [evidence] was suppressed. Case dismissed. Richard went on Donahue.''

But Reiff, then a prosecutor, said it dates to the 1983 cases of a prominent attorney ``pulled over in his Rolls Royce'' who couldn't find anyone specializing in DUI cases. He hired Essen and ``ended up winning,'' to the chagrin of a special prosecutor.

Essen made law enforcement ``work smarter,'' Reiff said.


Viewers loved to hate Richard Essen, when he appeared on TV, said his wife, a psychotherapist.

``He wore the `black hat,' but he didn't mind that,'' Laura Essen said. ``He got more heat for defending drunk drivers than drug dealers in the '70s.''

In addition to his wife, Essen is survived by a son, Michael, and a daughter Elena Endara, both of Miami. He didn't want a memorial service, but the family requests donations to the Jewish National Fund, which plants trees in Israel -- one of his favorite causes.

© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved. 

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