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No segment of society immune from DUIs: Engel

Toronto criminal lawyer Michael Engel likens his work defending drinking and driving offences to a chess game, one in which strategic constitutional arguments, rather than the strict merits of a case, are most likely to prevail.

A former Crown attorney, “I prosecuted hundreds, if not thousands, of these cases,” Engel, principal of Engel DUI Law, a Toronto firm specializing in drinking and driving offences, tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“When I came out on the other side as defence counsel, I discovered an aptitude for the type of constitutional arguments that are engaged in drinking and driving scenarios.”

Complex, technical, competitive and constantly changing, Engel relishes the challenges of his practice area.

“You’re arguing the case on a different level. Many people don’t see the constitutional challenges that are involved,” he says.

“When you’re presented with a case that looks pretty conclusive, there’s a certain pleasure in being able to dismantle it and successfully defend it.”

Engel compares his practice focus to that of a medical specialist.  

“If you have a neurological complaint, you don’t want to go see an orthopedic surgeon,” he says. “You need someone who deals exclusively with that area of medicine.”

Along with the intellectual engagement of his practice area, Engel finds a philosophical bent to his work.

“The constitutional issues that are engaged is really where the rubber meets the road in terms of Joe Citizen versus the state,” he says. 

Commonly referred to as DUI or DWI, which are American terms, Canada has three types of drinking and driving offences, all of which Engel defends: impaired driving, over 80, in which one’s blood-alcohol concentration exceeds the legal limit of 80 mg per 100 ml of blood; and/or refuse, in which one refuses to provide a breath sample.  

Because drinking and driving offenses are taken so seriously, even for someone without a prior offence, Engel says most people assume conviction as a given, particularly if their breath sample is over the legal limit; they refuse to give a sample; or, are found to be driving while impaired.

“Quite often people feel a sense of hopelessness when they’re charged with these offences,” he says.

That’s where he comes in.

The first, but rarely used argument is whether the detention was arbitrary.

“The police have broad powers to stop suspected drinking and driving motorists because we don’t drive as an entitlement or absolute right. It’s a privilege, it’s a licence,” Engel says.

“But in some cases, you will have officers that stop for reasons unrelated to concerns about the sobriety of the driver or the mechanical fitness of the vehicle. That’s illustrated in cases of racial profiling.”

Then there’s the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to instruct and retain counsel, Engel says.

Other violations include those relating to the circumstances of the accused’s confinement, such as the length of detention. There are also issues relating to the right to security of a person, such as not permitting the accused access to a washroom.

“People are entitled to a modicum of decency of treatment,” he says. “Those are some of the ways you defend it constitutionally.”

Investigative lapses by police include a breath test not being administered within a certain amount of time, Engel says.

His clients run the gamut.

“I’ve defended every type of person, people from all walks of society,” he says, including lawyers, accountants and even a bishop who might have had too much sacramental wine. “There’s no segment of society that is immune.”

While Engel acknowledges the seriousness of the offence, he believes in the right to a defence. “I do see some people who have serious drinking problems,” he says. “In some cases, I refer them to clinical psychologists.”

For many of his clients, though, it is their first criminal offence.

“In most cases, they’ve never been in trouble before, and they’re quite terrified," he says. "They have steady jobs and family commitments and the prospect of the continued loss of their licence or a conviction can be devastating in terms of career or travel plans.”

Even in those cases in which the charges are dropped, Engel says a price is paid.

“It’s not as if they get off scot-free,” he says. “Generally, it’s a gut-wrenching ordeal involving significant legal fees and about 12 to 18 months of their lives. At the end of the day, can you really say they’ve gotten off? By and large, people ‘learn their lesson’ and I generally never see them again.” 

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