Redress Risk Management (post until May 31/19)

Hiring a lawyer to defend a DUI charge

When hiring a lawyer to fight driving under the influence (DUI) charges, look for someone who can give you a complete picture of the pros and cons of your case, says Toronto criminal lawyer Michael Engel.

“Go with the lawyer who can give you the most comprehensive, sensible explanation of your situation,” he tells

People charged in drinking and driving cases usually approach defence lawyers with two main questions: “How much is it going to cost? And am I going to win?” says Engel, principal of Engel DUI Law, a Toronto firm that focuses on DUI offences.

“In order to answer either of those questions, I need to have some understanding of the specifics of the charge,” he says.

A good lawyer won’t promise victory, but will ask potential clients for a detailed account of their case in an initial, no-charge consultation either by phone or in person, says Engel, who has made defending DUI cases the focal point of his practice for 20 of his 35 years as a lawyer.  

Engel calls this initial discussion the “audition,” where the client looks for the best possible representation and the lawyer assesses whether he or she can help. 

He typically asks potential clients to provide copies of all the documents given to them by police. 

 “I try to diagnose the situation. The details are key,” Engel says. 

He will try to construct a minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow account of what happened. 

Engel often asks potential clients to provide their own chronological record of events, as revealed by their social media, text and phone calls. 

“Much of the challenge is just really understanding what the person’s situation is. The second challenge is to try and explain it to them,” he says.  

Many people don’t know exactly what they are charged with. “They just say, ‘Well, I’m just charged with DUI,” he says. 

DUI is an American term that, in Canada, generally refers to three types of drinking and driving offences: 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; and impaired driving, Engel explains.

Driving over 80 is probably the most complex and intensely litigated prohibition in the Criminal Code because it engages a host of constitutional issues, he says.

“That would include: whether or not they were arbitrarily detained; was there some sort of improper breath demand made; was the roadside test properly administered; and was their right to counsel violated. There are all manner of checks and balances that need to be investigated.” 

Drinking and driving cases are often won or lost, not on their merits, but on constitutional grounds, Engel says. “In terms of what I do, it really is an investigation of the conduct of the police.”

He advises defendants to choose the lawyer who can give them a complete, practical evaluation of their circumstances. 

“After I’ve viewed their documents and spoken to them carefully, I generally can tell them what I think the issues involved in their case are, subject to getting disclosure from the Crown,” Engel says. 

“I can tell the individual what they’re up against, what their chances of succeeding might be, what it depends upon and recommend the best course of action so they can make an informed decision as to what to do.”

Before hiring a lawyer, ask whether they have a practice focused on DUIs, Engel says. “It’s like if you had a neurological problem, you wouldn’t want to go to a general practitioner. I think you would want to go to someone who dealt with full-time neurology.”

Case law changes from week to week, he says. “The legislation is rapidly changing as well. There’s a number of us that practice exclusively in this area," he says.

It helps if the lawyer is a former prosecutor, Engels says. As a former Crown attorney at Old City Hall courthouse, he prosecuted hundreds of drinking and driving cases.  “As a Crown attorney, you see how cases succeed. You see how they fall apart. It’s invaluable training.”

Don’t believe any paralegal or lawyer who tells you they can guarantee a win, he says.

“Understandably, people want to hear something positive about their situation and there are those who would exploit that vulnerability, Engel says.

"I caution prospective clients not to believe anyone who 'guarantees victory' at an initial meeting. Rather than offering false hope, I prefer to tell people that if there is any way to have a successful outcome I’ll make every effort to find that strategy.

"What I want to communicate to potential clients is that these cases can be won but that the way to do that is to obtain all information available from them as well as the Crown in order to uncover investigative lapses or constitutional transgressions.”   

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