Justice on the Rocks


PADUCAH -- Some lawyers groan at the thought of taking a drunken-driving case.

Unlike a high-profile murder case, there is little prestige in defending a client who spent his evening slumped on a bar stool before failing a roadside sobriety test. Not surprisingly, DUI cases often land in the laps of overworked public defenders and young lawyers fresh out of school.

And then there's Andrew Coiner.

Coiner, 44, is experienced and expensive. He knows the law. He knows the science. He knows the loopholes.

Lawyers like him are one of the reasons why drunken-driving arrests can end in dismissals or weak plea deals, even when the evidence looks damning. Prosecutors can feel compelled to throw in the towel if faced with serious opposition and a jury trial they very well could lose.

"(Coiner) shreds every bit of evidence that you have," said McCracken County Attorney Dan Boaz. "He shreds everything that isn't evidence, too. When you say good morning to him on a trial day, he objects."

The Paducah Police Department introduced Coiner to the world of DUI in 1995 when it charged utility worker Mark Heil with drunken driving. Heil hired Coiner, who had recently moved to Paducah after years with large law firms and the state attorney general's office.

Eager to start building his client base, Coiner threw himself into Heil's case. He found what he considered serious flaws in the DUI laws and made a passionate argument. The jury acquitted Heil after three minutes of deliberation.

Today, Coiner's smiling face is found on his Web page at www.ky-drunkdrivinglawyer.com.

"A lot of lawyers won't try DUI cases because they involve a lot of law and a lot of science. It's just something they don't have any desire to get into," said Coiner, a founding member of the National College for DUI Defense Inc., a nationwide advisory group for lawyers.

"I found it an open area of the law, where, if you found out as much information as you could about each case and did your best to defend your client, you would be rewarded in front of the jury," he said.

Most of Coiner's practice is DUI defense. He wins the majority of his cases -- getting acquittals, dismissals and cases amended down to lesser charges -- thanks to his growing expertise. He owns an Alco Senser III portable breath analyzer and is federally certified to use the larger Intoxilizer 5000. He has memorized the police rules and accuracy rates for field-sobriety tests. For stickier cases, he keeps expert witnesses just a phone call and a $2,000 fee away.

It helps that he's a ravenous pit bull in the courtroom.

"Andy and I have a great relationship personally," said prosecutor Boaz, who -- in all fairness -- dismisses or reduces DUI charges less often on average than his statewide colleagues. "But I also know that when you go to court with him, you're going to war."

Coiner's rules of war:

* Attack the reason for the traffic stop.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police roadblocks are constitutional in certain cases -- Coiner frowns as he admits this -- but officers generally can't stop and check just anyone. There must be probable cause. People must drive recklessly or break another law before police can pull them over for interviews and field-sobriety tests, he said.

In 1998, Coiner persuaded a Ballard District Court judge to throw out a DUI charge against a client. Police stopped the man without evidence of erratic driving, based on the word of a police officer who saw the man earlier that day drinking in a bar.

The driver probably was drunk; he had a 0.181 blood-alcohol level, well over the legal limit. But the judge ruled the officer had insufficient reason to stop the man's car.

* Attack the field-sobriety tests.

Field-sobriety tests are ridiculous, Coiner said. Police officers with no medical education ask somebody to stand on one leg, touch his nose and follow a finger with his eyes to 45 degrees, and then they classify the suspect as drunk or sober, he said.

"Some people can't do these tests sober. Field-sobriety tests are designed for you to fail," he said.

Coiner owns a copy of the police training manual for field-sobriety tests. According to the manual, these exams are accurate at predicting drunkenness from 65 to 80 percent of the time. That's not a great record for tests that can help send someone to jail, he said.

Coiner advises his clients to politely but firmly refuse to take the tests. If a client takes and flunks the tests, Coiner grills the arresting officer on the witness stand to tarnish his credibility -- and the value of the tests -- in the eyes of the jury. Jurors tend to be skeptical about roadside exams, anyway, he said.

* Attack the blood-alcohol concentration.

The key evidence in DUI cases is the suspect's blood-alcohol concentration, the grams of alcohol carried in every 100 milliliters of the suspect's blood. Under Kentucky law, a BAC of 0.10 or more means the suspect is presumed to be drunk. A BAC of 0.18 or more brings mandatory jail time for the first and third offenses.

But a BAC is only as accurate as the breath-analyzer machine used to detect it. The machines must be used properly by trained technicians and well-calibrated by specialists every month. Sometimes they aren't, leaving the prosecution's case vulnerable to attack during cross-examination, Coiner said.

If a client's BAC is close to the legal limit, Coiner can bring in an expert witness -- a woman who worked with Intoxilizer 5000 machines for many years -- to testify about how easily police can get inaccurate numbers.

Of course, the expert costs $2,000. And that's on top of Coiner's regular fees, which can reach $4,000 for a first-offense case that goes to trial. It's a higher price than most lawyers charge, Coiner admitted. But then, he suggests, smiling, he wins more cases than most lawyers.

Coiner is handsome and laughs readily. His slightly receding hairline, fleshy face and thin nose make him resemble a young Bob Hope. But his voice lowers almost to a growl when he talks about DUI laws.

Yes, he said, drunken drivers are dangerous. They should be punished if legitimately caught. He can't imagine what he would do if his wife and 16-month-old daughter were hurt in an alcohol-related wreck.

However, he said, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other "special interests" have pressured the General Assembly into creating a maze of coordination tests, inflexible blood-alcohol levels and mandatory punishments that snare people who had perhaps two glasses of wine with dinner.

"I empathize with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers," he said. "But I don't think they deserve to shred the Constitution."

The MADD leader in Paducah, Deanna Hoskins, lost two children in an alcohol-related crash. She isn't wild about Coiner, whom she has watched in action.

Like all talented defense lawyers, Coiner manipulates the law to help his clients avoid responsibility for the threat they pose to the community, she said.

"There is so much education about the dangers of drinking and driving at this point that nobody can claim ignorance when they're caught," Hoskins said.

"I understand they have the right to a defense," she said. "But there are times when I want to get up there and smack them. When you see firsthand the tragedy that can happen ... it becomes difficult to stay neutral."

Paducah's police chief, Kermit Perdew, whose officers have been skewered by Coiner on the witness stand, paused for nearly half a minute when asked for his feelings about the lawyer.

"I don't really think I should say anything," Perdew finally offered.

However, Coiner is beloved by his clients. In 1997, police charged car salesman Brian Nethery with DUI. An officer said Nethery was driving too slowly, and once he was stopped, he reeked of alcohol. Nethery refused to take a breath test.

Coiner persuaded the judge to suppress most of the officer's testimony, Nethery said. The lawyer attacked the reasons for the traffic stop. He pointed out that Nethery appeared fairly sober and coherent on the police cruiser's videotape of the arrest.

With the case weakened, prosecutors amended the charge down to reckless driving. Nethery paid a $100 fine.

"I was most impressed by how smooth Andrew was in the courtroom. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it," said Nethery, 28. "Especially when I saw the lawyer who was in court ahead of us. He was handling a DUI, too, but he was fumbling through his law books and trying to get his argument together.

"In his profession, you've got to know the loopholes," Nethery added. "Just like being an accountant doing someone's taxes. Andrew knows all the loopholes. He knows how the system works."

* If there are problems with DUI law enforcement, there are also remedies. A list of things the concerned citizen can do.

See the Herald-Leader online via www.kentucky.com

How Kentucky courts violate DUI laws

Article written by John Cheves, Herald-Leader Staff Writer
July 29, 2000

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