A Drunkard's Dream

Attorney Bob Bettenberg finds a probable cause for getting drunk drivers off.

Bob Bettenberg's stories--and there are a lot of them--have the tempo and anticipation of a joke building toward a punchline, the sentences clipped and the narrative always in the present tense: "Guy walks into a bar..." Except in Bettenberg's case, that is how the stories actually begin, and they are true.

In fact, it has been to his great advantage and financial security that guys are always walking into bars, indulging maybe a little more than they should--although, until proven in a court of law, that is a highly debatable and not entirely salient fact--walking out, slipping into their cars, pointing the grille between the yellow lines to the best of their abilities and getting busted.

Sterling, Colorado. Guy walks into a bar. Walks out, gets arrested for driving drunk. His blood alcohol level is about 2.6, more than double the amount necessary to convict someone of driving under the influence--DUI.

"But," points out Bettenberg, "the law says BAL analysis must be tested within ten days of the draw. This one comes back in fifteen. You talk about walking into a gold mine. It was a beautiful case. Beautiful."

The test's administrator is called to the stand. She tries to explain. She relates how difficult it was to get an accurate reading. She is sympathetic.

The first reading we did was zero, she says, but that couldn't have been right, because the guy was drunk.

She is dead meat!
"And so the guy got off," concludes Bettenberg gleefully. "And he was a second offender!

"That doesn't mean he wasn't guilty," he adds, soberly. "Because he was."
Bettenberg is, in these times of temperance, an anachronism--an insurgent in the war against drunk driving, a long-distance swimmer fighting a tide of outrage toward the intoxicated, a "Thin Man" in the age of Ken Starr. Put another way, he is one of a shrinking number of attorneys who exclusively defend drivers accused of piloting their vehicles while under the influence of booze, an unforgivable violation of safety, judgment, common decency and Colorado Revised Statute 42-4-1301.

Last year, 36,726 people were charged with drunk driving in Colorado. The number of lawyers willing to regularly handle such unpopular causes is small--probably less than a dozen in the Denver area--so Bettenberg is busy. He juggles up to 200 DUI cases a year, by his own estimate, covering ground from the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains. One week a short time ago, he had six cases going in different jurisdictions across the state. He got them all off. He made it look easy, but it wasn't.

"DUI is the hardest case to try," he says. "Period. You go in there and you always look like a schmuck. I mean, you're a drunk, right? With a rape case, you'll get a fair trial. The jury is thinking: 'This isn't going to happen to my daughter--it happens to other people.' But you start talking about a DUI, and they don't want to let you go. They're thinkin', 'You could hurt me some Saturday night.' They don't want you out."

"The worst thing that can happen is a drunk-driver crash the day before you go to trial," he sighs. "When Princess Di was killed--oh, that was bad. It seemed Dodi had a load on every time he got into the car. But I got lucky; by sheer luck, two trials I had scheduled for that week were postponed."

In fact, to a busy DUI lawyer, it can seem like no one is on your side. "These days most judges are former prosecutors," Bettenberg explains. "So not only do you have to fight lawyers and juries--and sometimes, your own clients--now you got judges against you. They're afraid mad mothers will come into their courtrooms. The political pressure is unbelievable."

Still, despite the low popularity of the profession, Bettenberg has made it his business to overcome the stacked odds. And most people who have met him in a courtroom would agree that, more often than not, he does.

"I have been up against many, many attorneys," says Cindy Grien, a Northglenn cop who, until being promoted recently to detective, worked on DUI cases. "But nothing is so scary as going up against Bob."

"Everyone is defensible," he says. "There is no case you can't win." Some are more personal than others.

Federal Heights, 1982. Guy goes into bar. Likes it so much he buys one of his own. Quits his professional job, begins working there.

Next thing, Bob Bettenberg finds himself drinking up the profits. He's gotta get home somehow, too, so naturally, some drunk driving is involved.

"It was getting to the point where it might be a problem," he recalls. "I was going to get caught sooner or later."

"Oh! See that box!"
The square, softball-sized cardboard package perched on his receptionist's desk gives Bettenberg the tingles. "It's the collectibles coming! But I don't wanna open it yet. I'm too excited!" He is short, rumpled and can swear like a mobster, so together the words and the picture are jarring. Think Joe Pesci getting worked up over Barbies.

The package could contain any number of things ready for display, mounting or cataloguing. Perhaps a new Beanie Baby or more stamps or coins. Possibly an addition to his sprawling baseball-card collection. It could be some sports paraphernalia. If so, it will have to struggle for attention; Bettenberg's Westminster office already looks like ESPN's SportsCenter as envisioned by Hummel or the Franklin Mint.

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