She’s the 2017 recipient of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ “DUI Gladiator” award.
Each year, nearly 3,000 people are cited for DUI in Duval County.
Under state law, that includes driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages, chemical substances or controlled substances, proved by impairment of normal faculties or an unlawful blood or breath alcohol level of .08 or above.
Defending people charged with DUI is the specialty of the Epstein & Robbins law firm. Co-founder David Robbins said the focus started evolving after the firm opened in 1975.
“When we started, we only did criminal law, but we were most successful doing DUI defense – and word got around,” he said.
Attorney Susan Cohen joined the firm in 2000 after practicing for four years as an assistant state attorney in the 4th Judicial Circuit.
She’s the 2017 recipient of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ “DUI Gladiator” award, which is presented each year to the group’s top DUI defense attorney.
Cohen got to know Robbins when she was prosecuting people he was defending. When he was looking for an attorney to help expand his firm’s appellate practice, she made the switch from the state to the private sector.
“Specializing in DUI defense is rewarding because it involves both criminal and administrative law,” she said.
The initial charge and penalty is just the beginning for her clients, who after they pay their fine face the loss of their driver’s license and higher insurance rates.
For some people, losing their driving privilege means losing their job, and for every client, there’s the stigma that comes with being convicted of DUI.
“A big part of my job is helping people in the long-term outcome. The long-term impact can be significant,” said Cohen.
Penalties for a first conviction can be as much as a $2,000 fine and imprisonment for up to nine months, impoundment of the vehicle for 10 days and revocation of driving privilege for 180 days to one year.
The penalties for DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide are even greater, including fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment up to 30 years.
Unlike other illegal acts, such as robbery, DUI isn’t premeditated in most cases, Cohen said.
“DUI usually is not intentional and it’s not illegal to drink and drive in this state until you’re at .08,” Cohen said.
“If you’ve ever been to a party, chances are 90 percent of the people could have been apprehended for DUI,” she added.
It also is a crime that crosses all ages, demographics and walks in life.
“Young and old, black and white – it hits across the board. I’ve represented doctors, nurses and teachers. In 17 years, I’ve seen everybody come through the door,” she said.
“We’ve represented business people and lawyers and judges and their children,” said Robbins.
He said that a list was published several years ago of the top 20 business people in Jacksonville and “we had represented four of them.”
Cohen said it’s her experience that most of the firm’s clients are first-time offenders, and for many, a DUI is the first time they’ve experienced the criminal justice system.
“For most people, getting arrested is all it takes. It’s very scary. For the most part, people do not repeat,” she said.
Since it’s usually an unpremeditated crime, prevention is the best defense. That is a factor in the office holiday parties that are in full swing.
“Uber there in the first place,” said Cohen. “That way, you’re not tempted to drive.”