Challenging Strict DUI Laws One Case at a Time

'TOP GUN' ATTORNEY: Myles L. Berman, 50, speaks on the Al Rantel radio show on KABC-AM (790). The DUI lawyer's barky ads, which are a staple on Los Angeles radio talk shows, feature his firm's motto, "Friends don’t let friends plead guilty."
‘TOP GUN’ ATTORNEY: Myles L. Berman, 50, speaks on the Al Rantel radio show on KABC-AM (790). The DUI lawyer’s barky ads, which are a staple on Los Angeles radio talk shows, feature his firm’s motto, “Friends don’t let friends plead guilty.”
(Francine Orr / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

There was a time when Myles L. Berman was just another L.A. lawyer taking on personal injury and criminal defense cases.

But in 1992, a transformation took place. A jigger of chutzpah mixed with some old-fashioned marketing and

… Ka-BLAM!

When the smoke cleared, he was no longer simply Myles L. Berman, but Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney® Myles L. Berman: regional advertising juggernaut, defender of the allegedly tipsy and one of the best-known crusaders against California’s increasingly strict laws against drunk driving.

Today — thanks to a radio ad campaign that sticks in the head like peanut butter in a dog’s mouth — Berman is known in Southern California by the nickname he trademarked in 1997. His seven-lawyer firm has defended hundreds of clients, nearly all of them suspected of driving under the influence.

In person, Berman, 50, is surprisingly low-key — a broad-shouldered bastion of gravitas in a well-tailored suit. But his marketing campaign is considerably less sober. His firm’s barky radio ads, which are a staple on Los Angeles’ testosterone-fueled talk shows, feature the motto “Friends don’t let friends plead guilty,” a play on the slogan favored by anti-drunk-driving advocates. His website, , offers lists of Southern California’s “DUI cop hide-outs” posted by random drivers.

That attitude doesn’t go down well with Tina Pasco, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She said Berman had the right to defend the accused, but his sales pitch could be “very offensive to those who feel that impaired driving is more serious than the ads reflect.”

Berman contends that his message is serious. Sitting in his Sunset Strip offices on a weekday morning, he credited his ads with convincing people that it is possible to challenge drunk-driving arrests, which he says are often based on “Draconian” laws and “voodoo science.”

“When I first started advertising, people couldn’t believe you could beat a DUI case,” he said. “Through our marketing campaign, we’ve educated the public that these cases can be won.”

Berman, an Illinois native, knew he wanted to be a lawyer when he was 14, after he took a field trip to a courthouse in downtown Chicago. His big transformation came, however, in 1992, when he attended a conference in Las Vegas that taught him how to poke holes in prosecutors’ DUI cases — often by challenging the precision of breath analyzers.

In California, the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers had been falling — from 0.15% to 0.10%, and now 0.08%. Berman factored in L.A.'s sprawling car culture and realized that he’d happened upon a lucrative specialty.

The finishing touch was his handle. It was an idea inspired by his grandfather, Hy Berg, a Ukrainian emigre who was the first United States distributor of the Jeep utility vehicle. He was known as the “King of Jeeps.”

“Marketing is something that was in my family for decades,” Berman said. “I knew that if you had the right catchy name and it’s marketed correctly, it helps identify you as the best at what you do.”

So he began advertising as the Top Gun. He had no military or aviation background; it just sounded good. He began with direct mail, then moved to radio. He fired up the website, which repeats that catchy nickname in its introduction like a mantra:

“Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney® Myles L. Berman is a successful, aggressive DUI / Drunk Driving defense lawyer … “

“The Law Offices of Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney® Myles L. Berman is ready to fight your case … “

“If you have been arrested for DUI … and want to contact Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney® Myles L. Berman … “

Business has soared. Berman has received calls from housewives, day laborers and celebrities. Some drivers even called while a wailing police car was still on their tail.

Some of Berman’s colleagues have criticized his approach.

“They just thought that it was beneath lawyers’ dignity to advertise,” Berman said. “Criminal lawyers didn’t like me setting myself out as better than other people in my field. But nobody’s ever accused me of not having the ability to consider myself the best. That never was the issue.”

Berman says the firm has represented hundreds of successful DUI cases in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, resulting in acquittals, dismissals or reduction of charges.

Ellen Sarmiento, the supervisor for the metropolitan branch of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, said Berman was known for a “very aggressive” style in the courtroom. But she made it known that she wasn’t exactly quaking in her boots.

“There’s this image that he puts out that he’s the Top Gun,” she said. “But if you look at our conviction rate for DUI, it’s over 90%, and he’s not putting a dent in it.”

Anyone who enters Berman’s Los Angeles office is treated to a wall of photos of Berman with celebrities such as Arnold Palmer, and with local politicians such as Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and former Mayor James K. Hahn. An early breath-analysis machine, the “Intoximeter 3000,” is on display. A sign notes that Berman accepts all major credit cards.

A driver charged with DUI for the first time can expect to pay Berman $10,000 to $12,000 if his or her case goes to trial — and more if there has been an accident. Berman says it’s a deal, given the alternatives.

In California, convicted first-time offenders can lose their license for up to a year, are required to take a DUI class and will have the arrest on their record for 10 years. Fines begin at $390, but the state DMV estimates that a DUI can cost a driver $5,263 in total fines and insurance increases.

Berman emphasizes that he opposes drunk driving. He just thinks the state has gone overboard in its attempts to legislate it away.

Although people generally support laws that increase penalties on drunk drivers, Berman said it is only when they are arrested that “they see just how far we’ve gone.”

Between 1980 and 1986, anti-drunk-driving campaigns led by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving helped persuade California lawmakers to pass 55 pieces of legislation tightening DUI laws, according to the Drivers Research Institute, a San Francisco-based counseling service.

Berman says there was no counterbalance. Where, he asks, are you going to find anyone who supports drunk drivers? The result, he says, are a series of punishments that don’t always fit the crime.

Berman said he would like to see most first-offense DUIs decriminalized if they don’t result in injury or accidents.

In the meantime, “the harder the laws get, the more we’re needed — there’s no question about that.”

There’s also no question about the choice made by Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney® Myles L. Berman if he’s had a few shots at a party.

He gives the keys to someone else.



A sober journey

• Berman began his career as a prosecutor in Chicago with the Cook County State’s Attorney.

• Prominently featured on Berman’s desk is a hand grenade accompanied by a sign that reads “Free Legal Advice — Take A Number.”

• In 2001, Berman persuaded a San Diego jury to acquit former Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Akili Smith of charges of driving under the influence. The lawyer also represented former Dodger outfielder Raul Mondesi, who was pulled over on suspicion of DUI in Glendale in 1998. Mondesi’s blood-alcohol level was just over 0.08%, but the district attorney’s office decided not to file charges.

• Berman’s mentor and model for success is Richard Essen, a Florida-based DUI attorney who garnered national attention in the 1980s for his hard-charging style and criticism of tough laws against drunk driving.

• Although Berman’s job entails questioning the specific actions of police, he is a big believer in law and order. The registered Republican says this sets him apart from those criminal defense attorneys who are “left over from the ‘60s.”

Los Angeles Times