Walnut Creek attorney Blackie Burak stopped by his downtown office just long enough to retrieve his organizer and pick up a few phone messages. He'd just returned from the airport after spending the morning in Susanville with a new client, and the afternoon ahead of him looked like a wall of court appearances and meetings: a hearing in Martinez; an arraignment in Oakland; a quick pretrial conference back in Walnut Creek. "This is nothing," said the 59-year-old lawyer, holding up a fan of paper notes. "After the holidays, things really pick up."
Burak makes his living defending drunk drivers. Over the past twenty years he's earned a reputation as one of the East Bay's best DUI attorneys -- and certainly among the busiest in the state. He's taken on as many as 175 cases per year, piloting his single-engine plane to the far reaches of California to represent the legions of citizens who've guzzled a few, or fifteen, stumbled their way to the driver's seat, headed out on the highway, and gotten nabbed.
"He's one of the most feared DUI attorneys around," says Joe Mada, a Contra Costa County prosecutor who has squared off against Burak more than a dozen times. "He'll fight for every little thing. He's got that tough-guy Marine spirit in him."
The annual holiday crusade against drunk driving that revved up last weekend will bring a nice bump in business for Burak. Over the next three weeks, if recent history is any indication, some 2,200 drivers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties will be arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, meaning their blood alcohol content exceeds the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Come January, Burak's phone will ring off the hook with clients ranging from the businessman caught up in a post-happy hour checkpoint to the alcoholic repeat offender who plowed through an occupied crosswalk, to the soccer mom heading home from a church luncheon to the college student hustling to the next kegger.
Burak has represented them all.
When he started out in the business two decades ago, a DUI was treated like a heavy traffic ticket: As long as nobody was hurt, the offender merely paid a fine and hoped not to get caught again. Since then, however, the rise to power of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the continued lowering of the legal blood alcohol limit, and other get-tough legislative acts have combined to create the modern-day villain known as the Drunk Driver, and, as a consequence, his equally reviled sidekick: the Drunk Driver's Attorney. "You've gotta have thick skin to do this job," says Burak, "and be a little bit crazy, too."
In fact, even as the number of DUI arrests has decreased over the past decade, Burak and his colleagues -- or at least their services -- are becoming more popular. According to DMV estimates, arrests in California rose to an all-time high at 366,000 in 1990, the same year the legal limit was lowered to 0.08 percent. After declining for years, the arrest rate recently steadied at around 190,000 per year. Many of the defendants slinking through Blackie's doors simply want to avoid the stigma of a DUI on an otherwise spotless record, he says. Others hope to escape the stiff punishments, which now can include jail time, thousands of dollars in fines, hours of community service, and months spent in "alcohol education classes," which blend traffic school and AA-type meetings.
In the past, drunk-driving defendants hired run-of-the-mill defense lawyers, but stability in the client pool has entrenched a new legal specialty. Burak is a founding member and past president of the California Deuce Defenders, a statewide coalition of DUI attorneys. In 1988, the year the association was established (state DUI codes all begin with the number 2, hence "deuce") it had roughly 100 members. Today there are 225.
Burak grew up in Philadelphia, and earned his nickname as a tough kid running numbers for a neighborhood bookie. (His real name is Barry, but even judges in open court call him Blackie.) He's kept fit over the years, and he's still capable of leveling a bully's gaze. "People take one look at me and think I'm an asshole," he admits. "But it's usually because I'm off thinking about something else, and I don't realize I'm looking right through them."
Behind that glare, he's also a left-leaning baby boomer who migrated to the West Coast in the late '60s and, as he puts it, "fully participated in the era." Now, as a seasoned lawyer who defends those among us who are considered rather indefensible in this zero-tolerance age, Burak has adopted a working philosophy that's part latte liberal, part Philly street smarts: Engage in the case only when you're in the courtroom. Once you step outside, fuggeddaboudit. "I know my clients are very stressed out, and going before a jury can be a very stressful thing," Burak says, waving a hand. "But I don't get that way anymore. I don't take the cases personally, and I can't take them home with me. I've forgotten half of them already."
The lawyer can still recall one case, however, as easily as if it took place this morning, even though it happened decades ago. A young Southern California mother named Rita was out one day with her husband Jay and their two children. They were headed toward home in the family car when a truck came from the other direction, its driver loaded as all hell. He smashed into the car head-on, says Burak, and the entire family was killed.
That fatal day stood out for Blackie because Rita was his cousin. Burak's closest friends growing up in Philly, apart from the kids he ran with on the streets, were his first cousins. "They were like my brothers and sisters," he says. Rita was just a year older than Blackie and was one of his favorite people. "I can still remember the moment when I got the news," he adds, staring straight through his visitor for a moment. "So yeah, I know what that's like."
If you find yourself standing inside Blackie Burak's office, the first thing he'll do is size you up. Resemble W.C. Fields? Find yourself another lawyer. "I can do the best job in the history of DUI attorneys, but no jury in the world will believe a guy if their client's nose is red and he reeks like booze." The walls in Burak's office are decorated by three framings: a Marines recruitment poster that reads "Smack 'em down!," a Grateful Dead poster from a 1971 concert, and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln who, Burak notes, was known as a pretty good country lawyer himself.
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