A common misconception is that as a criminal defense attorney, I represent “criminals” – bad people. In fact, most of the people that I represent are decent, hard-working people who, on occasion, happen to have done a terrible thing. Because of that terrible thing that they did, they are facing horrible life changes, including imprisonment, loss of their career, and other consequences.
Many of the people that I represent are in that position because they are either alcoholics or drug addicts. Perhaps they have tried in the past to face their substance abuse problem without success. There is a saying that no one ever truly addresses a substance abuse problem until they are totally motivated to do so. That motivation frequently comes when the individual hits what is, for them, rock bottom.
I am not a substance abuse counselor. However, I know that many of the people that come to me for help face substance abuse problems. I also know that for those individuals sitting in my office, having to hire an attorney in circumstances where their life could well be upended, is rock bottom for them. To help their case and to help them, at the start of such representations it’s an opportune time to address the alcohol/substance abuse issue. If I can get the person to address their problem, if we ever face a sentencing, I have their rehabilitation to talk about. More than that, I feel like I have made a contribution to that person’s life.
I frequently begin by asking the client if they are an alcoholic. Overwhelmingly, people say no. I then ask them to tell me what is an alcoholic. I get answers like these:
- Well, an alcoholic is somebody who needs to drink.
- An alcoholic is somebody who drinks every day.
- An alcoholic is somebody who drinks until they black out.
I explain that there is another definition. I suggest that an alcoholic or addict is someone who allows alcohol or drugs to interfere with their lives and despite knowing that this occurs, continues to drink or abuse drugs. Suppose, I say, you are allergic to strawberries. Suppose that every time you ate so much as a single strawberry, you had a terrible allergic reaction and ended up being rushed to the hospital. Suppose you knew that strawberries had that effect on you, and yet, in the face of such knowledge, you continued to eat strawberries. Clearly, there is something pathological going on. If you know strawberries are bad for you, and you continue to eat them, it doesn’t matter if you eat them every day, once a year, or once every 60 years, there’s something crazy going on. The same, I suggest, is true of alcohol or drugs.
I point out that clearly, alcohol and/or drugs has tremendously interfered with their lives. After all, they’re sitting in my office, hiring me to represent them in a serious case with their future on the line. If, in the face of that, they continue to ingest alcohol or drugs, it’s the same as if they’re ingesting strawberries when they know they’re poison. I also say that being an alcoholic is like being left or right-handed. It’s something they were born with and it’s for life.
I tell many clients who commit alcohol-related offenses that it is essential that they get into Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and attend a couple of AA meetings a week. I explain that, eventually, we may be in front of a judge facing a sentencing. If we have a sign-up sheet, or evidence showing that they have been attending AA routinely, it can be the difference between probation and prison. I require some clients to purchase their own hand-held intoxilyzer device which emails my office their breath readings. This way, I can have documented proof that they have been alcohol-free for the pendency of the case. Again, it makes a huge difference at sentencing. I am happy to say that for many clients, it also makes a difference in their lives.
One day, I was working out at the gym. Someone grabbed me from behind in a bear hug. I turned around to see an extremely athletic man. I didn’t recognize him. When I didn’t, he exclaimed, “Mr. Bloom, It’s me, __________!” I recognized the name as someone I had represented a few years previously. But he looked totally different. I told him that he looked terrific and that he was not recognizable as the person I had represented. I asked him how he was doing. “Great,” he said, “absolutely great. I work out every day and I feel totally healthy.” Then he reached over and grabbed me to give me another hug. “It’s because,” he said, “I know I’m allergic to strawberries.”
It’s those type of experiences that make me glad I was born to be a criminal defense attorney.
Michael J. Bloom