Trading Places

Once, Gary Pirosko ticketed drunk drivers;  then he prosecuted them; now he defends them

Published in 2007 Colorado Super Lawyers — April 2007

In the 1980s, Gary Pirosko, now a DUI attorney with a solo practice, was a South Suburban Park police officer and a deputy sheriff for Arapahoe County, where he wrote hundreds of traffic and DUI tickets. He's got plenty of stories from those days, but one, involving a 16-year-old boy, he'll never forget.

Nerdy and socially awkward, the boy bought a new Jeep, which instantly won him social recognition and friends. After Pirosko ticketed the teen for drinking and driving, the boy promptly lost his license, his driving rights and the few friends he had. Troubled, the boy put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

The story may be extreme, but Pirosko says he uses it to get across an important point to the prosecution. "I just say, 'Look at it from this person's perspective: They're going to lose their job. This case may seem like another file to you, but this is a person.'"

After defending thousands of DUI cases, Pirosko says that a winning component of his practice is the ability to allow a bureaucratic system, which normally sees only files, names and numbers, to see a person.

To most of society, drunk drivers are the "despised and the damned," Pirosko says. To him, they are people who make mistakes. Like the rest of us, they deserve the chance to pick up the pieces and move on.

"What prosecutors, judges and police officers overlook is the stress involved when someone gets a DUI. People say, 'Well, this is just a DUI, it's not a death penalty case,'" says Pirosko. "My point of view is, 'But it could be.'"

 

Pirosko discovered the law after training to be a park ranger. The youngest of five children from a working-class Cleveland family, Pirosko spent much of his childhood canoeing, bike riding and exploring the world. Hoping to parlay his love of the outdoors into a full-fledged career, Pirosko completed a two-year degree after high school and moved to Colorado to attend forestry school.

Pirosko's years in school read like an outdoor enthusiast's dream: summer jobs for the U.S. Forest Service, including a stint as a back-country ranger in the Colorado State Forest. Upon graduation, he took a job with the South Suburban Park Police outside of Denver. In this urban park, the greatest danger wasn't mountain lions or bears but humans and alcohol. Pirosko excelled with South Suburban, and later he was absorbed into the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Department. In both agencies, Pirosko was the leading DUI officer. One year he issued more DUIs than the other 69 officers in his patrol division put together.

Pirosko has no regrets about his days in law enforcement. In fact, his high level of performance demonstrated qualities that have served as a foundation throughout his professional career: hard work and dedication. "It's Midwestern work ethic," he says. "If I'm going to be out there, I'm going to be doing something—I didn't sit around and eat at 7-Eleven."

It was during his eight years in South Suburban and the sheriff's office that Pirosko began to understand the social dynamics that surround a drinking-and-driving offense. One night, a tow-truck driver near Cherry Creek Reservoir was detained without incident, and remained quiet, thinking, in the back of Pirosko's patrol car during the ride to the police station. Finally the truck driver said, "Life's gotten too complicated."

Pirosko says the man finally "got it."

During his time as a cop, Pirosko explored other areas of interest, from financial planning to real estate to insurance—obtaining licenses in all three. But it was his curiosity in law and subsequent acceptance to the night program at the University of Denver College of Law that brought him into the litigation arena.

Pirosko won an American jurisprudence for criminal law award during law school in 1990. After graduation, he migrated to the Adams County District Attorney's office. As a trial and appellate deputy who researched and wrote legal arguments, Pirosko argued against hundreds of DUI cases and other crimes. But after four years, Pirosko says he grew tired of working in a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic system.

"Essentially, the defense bar could walk into the D.A.'s office and look at a chart on the wall to figure out what they're going to offer in a plea [bargain]," says Pirosko. "When you get out of law school [and] have a doctorate degree, you should be hired for discretion—especially at the lower criminal level. The district attorneys around Colorado have taken [away] that discretion from their deputies."

Working with a strict domestic-violence policy was the final straw. In Adams County, if a spouse called for police intervention and the partner pleaded or was found guilty, the partner was required to attend counseling—even if the offense involved a minor verbal dispute. This proved particularly difficult for couples living on the margins of poverty. Counseling costs hundreds of dollars, and for some this meant putting the bare necessities on the back burner. "There are certain people who, if they got into an argument and the cops showed up at their door, they would never get in trouble again," he says. "Then there are people who no matter how many times they go to jail, they're going to get into more domestic violence because they don't have the skills necessary. The system treats everyone the same."

So Pirosko joined the other side.

 

Today, in Pirosko's downtown Denver office, a landscape portrait dominates one wall, while pictures of nature fill another. A nearby bookshelf holds a framed quote by Clarence Darrow: "To be an effective criminal defense counsel, an attorney must be prepared to be demanding, outrageous, irreverent, blasphemous, a rogue, a renegade, and a hated, isolated and lonely person ... few love a spokesman and active defender for the despised and the damned."

More than a decade after starting his independent criminal defense practice, Pirosko is one of the most well-respected DUI attorneys in the state. Still there are daily court battles with judges, the prosecution and the system. The Darrow quote reminds Pirosko what he's up against, and why he loves criminal defense work.

"A lot of what defense attorneys do is public service—our job is to uphold the Constitution," he says.

"Compassion, experience and dedication—those are the three things you need to be a good defense attorney," says Larry Pozner, a partner at Reilly, Pozner & Connelly, a firm for which Pirosko does contract work. "What is unusual is that [Pirosko] was both a prosecutor and a deputy sheriff. He has years of looking at changing laws and understanding the weaknesses of the tests."

Pirosko is particularly good at interpreting the science behind alcohol, the human body and breath-testing equipment. Machines can malfunction, and lab tests can over- or under-calculate intoxication levels.

Because most DUI cases rarely involve a smoking gun, successful outcomes are often achieved through copious amounts of research and follow-through on small, seemingly meaningless details. Examining log records from breath-test machines, viewing police videotape footage or reading the police report could hold the key to a successful DUI case.

"It's not just what's in the police report," he says, "it's what's missing from the police report. You pick up a report and to the untrained eye, everyone says, 'This guy's obviously guilty,'" he says. "But that's the start of a process. It's a lot of legwork."

Equally important for Pirosko, and other DUI attorneys, is a second breath sample that Colorado law required police officers to obtain when processing impaired drivers. Recently, Colorado decided to change the law and eliminate collecting the sample for independent testing by the defense. Most DUI attorneys considered the procedure valuable, and sometimes found discrepancies between the first and second breath sample. Pirosko attended meetings, protested the change and kept his colleagues up-to-date on developments—providing an invaluable service to other attorneys in the DUI field.

"[Gary was] showing up at the DMV hearings and throwing apples and tomatoes at all the right people," F. Paul Figlia, a DUI attorney with a solo practice, says. "Eventually any benefits that Gary gains by that, whether it's compromise or defeat, we all end up with a better system."

While Pirosko looks forward to educating the system on the fallibility of science and breath tests, he will keep looking out for the "despised and the damned." He hopes to steer his clients back on the right track in life. And on those days when the prosecution seems particularly fierce, he'll recall a 16-year-old boy, draw a deep breath and get to work.

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