Lobbying Under the Influence

There's nothing wrong with having a few drinks before you drive. So says David Heilman, Mr. Anti-DUI.

David Heilman is making the most of happy hour. A slow but steady stream of Bacardi rum and Cokes, interspersed with glasses of Budweiser, appear and disappear in front of him on the bar at Gatsby's in West Palm Beach. The small Tuesday-evening crowd consists mainly of middle-aged men dressed like lawyers, and Heilman is not out of place. French cuffs peek out from his double-breasted blazer. The top two buttons of his white dress shirt are open, revealing a gold chain. Giant pinky rings dominate each hand as his elbows rest on the dark wood bar.

"The guy who drinks and drives doesn't have a lobby," Heilman laments. It's a statement few would argue with -- or construe as problematic, either. "Without a lobby," he adds, "MADD passes anything it wants."

Heilman is the closest thing to a lobbyist there is for the guy or gal at the bar who ties on one too many and gets behind the wheel. The 59-year-old Palm Beach County resident (he asks that the city in which he lives not be revealed for fear of police harassment) is an unabashed defender of those who mix alcohol with automobiles. Three years ago he started a company to help DUI offenders beat the rap, and in July he filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court protesting the way that drunk-driving cases are handled by the state.

David Heilman is waging a one-man war against drunk-driving laws
Melissa Jones
David Heilman is waging a one-man war against drunk-driving laws

"I drink all the time," Heilman concedes. "I'm always over .08," the legal driving limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

Ever since Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980, limits on how much liquor a person is allowed to consume before operating a vehicle have been steadily tumbling. In 1993 Florida dropped the legal limit of booze in the bloodstream from .10 to .08. President Clinton has pushed for the same standard to be adopted nationwide, despite very little evidence that the proposed limit makes for safer roads. Heilman knows that defending drinking and driving is on a moral par with forgiving child molesters, but his is a crusade for social drinkers, those who have a few drinks at a bar or a party and are able, as he sees it, to drive home safely. "It's all bullshit," he says of the debate over what he considers arbitrary blood-alcohol limits.

In July, Heilman, who makes his living as a paralegal, filed a petition of "quo warranto" with the Florida Supreme Court, questioning the way DUI cases are handled by the state's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV). Heilman charges that the agency's employees are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. If the Supreme Court decides that his petition has merit, it could throw into jeopardy all DUI citations. In 1998, 55,705 people were cited for DUI. Of those, 42,088 were eventually convicted.

According to a law passed in 1990 by the state legislature, when someone is arrested for driving under the influence, the state may rescind the alleged offender's license even before he or she goes to trial. The ruling takes place at an "administrative hearing," which is overseen by an employee of the DHSMV rather than a judge. The hearing almost always results in a first-time DUI offender's license being revoked for six months. Heilman argues in his petition that, because these hearing officers have the power to seize property (your license) and inflict punishment, they are effectively operating as judges -- even though they're not even lawyers. He is trying to convince defense attorneys to join him in the fight by filing separate motions with the Supreme Court based on similar arguments.

Despite Heilman's confidence in his prospects, the petition faces an uphill battle. Heilman first presented his argument in a 1997 complaint to the Florida Bar, which summarily rejected his assertion that the hearing officers are practicing law illegally. The Bar cited a state statute that allows for administrative DUI procedures and a state Supreme Court decision that the Bar believes permits hearings to be conducted by civilians. (Heilman is no stranger to the Florida Bar: Three complaints have been filed against him in the last four years charging him with unlicensed practice of law, mainly with regard to his paralegal work.)

Richard Springer, a Lake Worth defense attorney who specializes in DUI cases, believes Heilman doesn't have much of a chance. He notes that similar administrative hearings have been upheld as constitutional by courts in other states. "I think, practically speaking, [Heilman] is correct," Springer says, "but I don't have any confidence that the courts will take any action on that issue." Most judges, he adds, have determined that driving is a privilege instead of a right, and is therefore not necessarily protected by the Constitution.

Heilman estimates he's spent more than 300 hours working on the issue. Originally he got into the DUI debate because he thought it could make him some money, but lately the fight has become personal. In the early morning hours of June 22, 1997, en route from a Jupiter bar to his then-home in North Palm Beach, Heilman was pulled over by a Juno Beach police officer. According to the officer's report, Heilman almost hit a median with his car and failed to stay in a single lane. After the officer pulled Heilman over, he found that Heilman's speech was slurred and that he had a strong odor of alcohol on his breath. Heilman also failed roadside sobriety tests, such as walking a straight line and turning -- although he did execute a tap dance for the officer. He later submitted to a Breathalyzer test, which gave a BAC of .11.

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