A certain breed of lawyer is known for chasing police cruisers and ambulances to car crash scenes, intending to represent the victims and score wins in a potentially profitable personal injury cases.
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The same entrepreneurial spirit thrives at the opposite end of the legal big-money spectrum: traffic tickets. But in this growing market, it's the speeders and drunk drivers who are chasing the lawyers to represent them.
Ads for traffic lawyers seem to pop up daily on radio stations, highway billboards and the Internet. And if you're unfortunate enough to get ticketed, you might well see one to three dozen solicitations show up in your mailbox within the next week to 10 days.
The firms have names such as Remove Tickets (Dallas), The Ticket Clinic (Miami) and Traffic Lawyer (New York).
The ticket specialists
These traffic ticket lawyers often devote their entire practice to traffic tickets, sometimes handling hundreds per day. Some even offer a money-back guarantee if they fail to get your fine reduced or keep the ticket off your record.
"We take whomever we want, and it's just built into the system that if there are errors on the ticket, it gets dismissed," says Mitchell Frank, who has been a traffic ticket attorney in Plantation, Florida, for more than a decade. "If there are no mistakes, then it's not going to be dismissed, but they still might get out of the points and the school and get a reduced fine, like a reward for a good record."
Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press
But do traffic lawyers deliver the goods?
"Can they get the tickets dismissed? Yes, because they know the technicalities," says Brenda Di Ioia, chief traffic magistrate for Broward County Courts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
"They also know which ones they can't get dismissed," she adds. "When the ticket is perfect, nobody is going to be able to do anything for you, so they plea (bargain) those. The attorneys are great if you don't have time to go to court or if your driving record isn't great."
So how do they do it? How can they afford to do it?
We'll ask a couple of them. But first, the realities of traffic court.
The ticket trap
You probably aren't aware of it, but when you receive a moving violation, you enter the complex machinery of your local municipal or county traffic court, where negotiation is more the rule than the exception.
They don't tell you that, of course. That's why 9 in 10 traffic offenders simply pay the ticket rather than fight it in court.
Paying that ticket has one serious drawback, however: It counts as a conviction on your record. And in recent years, the ripple costs of a conviction have eclipsed the immediate financial ding to your wallet. Today, the wrong ticket at the wrong time can send your insurance through the roof, result in a suspended license and steep state surcharges, and even cost you your job.
If you wonder if you need a traffic lawyer, you probably do.
Traffic tickets: A growth market
Traffic ticket revenue has become more important than ever to financially strapped cities and counties, which have found it noncontroversial to bump up their fines considerably in recent years. Many jurisdictions now "catch" speeders and red-light runners using cameras that automatically generate fines.
States are cashing in as well by enacting surcharges for repeat offenders, some of which far exceed the cost of the ticket itself.
Although traffic ticket statistics are not compiled nationally, Eric Skrum, a former spokesman for the National Motorists Association, says these increased revenue demands have led to stricter enforcement.
"We are seeing more and more traffic tickets, specifically speeding tickets, being issued every year because it is big money for a lot of different agencies," he says.
Higher stakes for violations
The federal government also has played a role in revving up traffic tickets.
First came a mandate that states lower blood-alcohol content levels for DWI (driving while intoxicated) arrests to 0.08% (eight one-hundredths of 1%) from 0.10. More recently, the National Transportation Safety Board has asked states to drop their "legal limit" further, to 0.05.
Then there's the dreaded insurance-point system. Exceed it and you're looking at sky-high insurance premiums, also called surcharges, for a minimum of two to three years.
As a result, even a speeding ticket today can be a high-stakes game for many motorists, especially those with recent priors. As more tickets are issued, more motorists more quickly approach either the financial pain threshold of fines, points and surcharges, plus the loss of their license -- or worse.
"I have an insurance agent, and it's written into his contract that if he receives a DUI ticket -- not convicted, just receives the ticket -- he loses his job," says Skrum. "There are a lot of professionals who cannot afford to receive that ticket."
Meet a 'Mr. Fixit'
Robert Eutsler, a seasoned Houston lawyer, switched the focus of his practice several years ago to vehicular violations, primarily speeding and driving under the influence.
He boasts a 95% success rate at keeping traffic violations off his clients' driving records. The key, he says, is a savvy staff that screens his cases and knows where his time is best spent.
Like most traffic attorneys, Eutsler has no interest whatsoever in whether you're innocent or guilty. For a ticket attorney, it is far more important to know who ticketed you and where. That determines the court in which your case will be called.
Preferring the smaller ponds
His best chance for success is in the overcrowded City of Houston Municipal Court; his worst in the tiny justice of the peace courts that dot the suburbs.
"In some of these little towns, we won't even practice because we know we can't do much to help," he says. "In the City of Houston, it is much more likely that the case will be dismissed or the officer won't show up."
Frank agrees: "Different counties are different. Some counties, mistakes don't matter to them -- if you've got a ticket, you've got to deal with it."
Eutsler figures that 95% of those ticketed for speeding are guilty. He doesn't spend a lot of time arguing otherwise.
Instead, as a day-to-day participant for the defense, he works with the judge and prosecutor in a friendly adversarial manner to determine which cases will go on to a costly jury trial and which won't. Remember, jurisdictions want to make money, not spend it.
Getting traffic cases tossed
Traffic lawyers know the players, the economic directives, the ever-changing laws and the processes by which cases get resolved in their local traffic courts. A case may be dismissed outright if:
- The issuing officer doesn't show up as complaining witness.
- There is a bargain for a case dismissal in exchange for pleas on other nonmoving violations.
- The defendant first agrees to an unsupervised probationary period and pays all or part of the fine.
The point is, even if you end up paying the fine, your case won't be recorded, which would set off that domino effect you've been dreading.
"The state gets theirs, the city gets theirs, but it's not a conviction," Eutsler says.
Does a lawyer give an edge?
Are prosecutors more likely to dismiss charges when a traffic lawyer represents you?
"Yes, they take advantage of people who aren't represented typically. They can get higher fines, more convictions," says Eutsler.
But Justin McNaull, a former police officer and vice president of government affairs at the online traffic school I Drive Safely, questions whether the presence of a lawyer necessarily results in reduced or dismissed findings.
"Lawyers were useful in helping facilitate the case at the time, but I can't say with certainty how much of a difference it made for the defendants," he says. "From a police officer's standpoint, there were many cases when people hired a lawyer and they got the same standard first-offender agreement that they would have gotten if they'd come in without a lawyer."
The benefits of being a ticket lawyer
Eutsler wouldn't reveal how many cases he represents per day, but says being a high-volume traffic lawyer is more lucrative than it may appear.
"For many people, especially in Houston, this is the only lawyer they know or have ever come in contact with, so when they have other problems or their sister gets in a car wreck or gets a DWI, you get a lot of other kinds of business," he says. "In some ways, it's a loss leader for firms that do other things besides just traffic tickets."
But Frank says offering legal representation starting at $69 has been so successful in recent years that he has confined his practice exclusively to traffic violations.
"It's time-consuming to handle DUIs (driving under the influence), so I don't deal with those anymore. I used to, but I have enough in the ticket business that I don't have to bother with it," he says.
"The more population grows, the more people drive, the more tickets there are and the more my business grows."
Copyright 2014, Bankrate Inc.
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