‘DUI Don’

Donald Ramsell is the authority on Illinois’ drinking and driving laws

Published in 2015 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2015

It started with $75 and a phone number. 

In 1986, Donald Ramsell was two years out of DePaul University School of Law, the “low man” at a workers’ compensation and personal injury firm—and he’d just received his first taste of DUI work, winning cases for two of his buddies. “I knew right away this is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Ramsell says. “Now it was just driving me crazy; I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney.”

A clever ad might net him clients, and a custom phone number could boost its staying power. He started brainstorming numbers with friends and family: GOT-A-DUI, DUIS-R-US, DIAL-DUI. “It was all done in a very comical, lighthearted sense,” says Ramsell, “but it intrigued me.”

The next week, he called his favorite of the numbers, 312-DIAL-DUI. A woman answered, but was uninterested when he asked to purchase her number. A month later, Ramsell tried again, offering $75. This time she agreed.

He took the new number and crafted a 10-second radio ad that skirted his relative inexperience. “It said,” he recalls, “‘last year there were 50,000 DUI arrests in the state of Illinois. DIAL-DUI was there and they can be there for you, too.’” Within a week, he signed up 23 clients. By week three, he had 50. By week four, he opened his own four-attorney firm.

Nearly 30 years later, Ramsell & Associates in Wheaton is one of the premier DUI firms in Illinois, grossing over $40 million in fees since its founding. Ramsell has earned his courthouse nickname “DUI Don” as an expert in the practice area and the author of Illinois DUI Law and Practice Guidebook.

His success involved a lot of hard work. “The judges, the prosecutors and the fellow attorneys, they were all hearing my ads—and they all saw my baby face—and [the defense attorneys] were not real happy with the fact that the new kid on the block was taking a bit of the piece of their plate,” he says.

“It really forced me to do either of two things: just be cheap and accept that I was going to do DUI like some people sell carpeting, or I was going to have to get real serious about proving that I was up to the challenge.”

So he learned everything he could about the science behind DUI, from blood and breath tests to gas chromatography. Once he snuck into a field-sobriety training course designed for police officers. 

In one case, Ramsell investigated the alcohol mixture used to check breathalyzers for accuracy. “It turned out that the Illinois State Police were not making the solution in the laboratories; rather, they had some police officer who was mixing it in the basement of his house,” he says. “So we’re talking half of the state of Illinois’ breathalyzers had been checked for accuracy based on what this nonscientist was mixing.” And it had been going on for 15 years.

Ramsell enjoys breaking down a jury’s biases. “In a DUI, when you walk into court, everyone’s presumed guilty,” he says. “[I] try to convince a jury of 12 that everything you’ve been taught about ‘you drink, you drive, you go to jail’ is not the law, and that a breathalyzer’s not a perfect device.”

He says that all breathalyzers are subject to limitations, mistakes and human error, and that governments often purchase from the lowest bidders. In his opening statement, he might tell the jury, “Even if you believe that this machine is correct 99 percent of the time, why is my client not that one out of 100 where it was wrong? … Even the most accurate measuring device has a measure of inaccuracy.’”

Ramsell took his arguments all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Illinois v. Lidster, a case that came to him almost by accident. While Ramsell was representing Robert Lidster on a DUI, Lidster brought in a letter from the Supreme Court, involving another DUI case he’d filed with a public defender. Ramsell thought the letter was a formality and told Lidster he’d represent him if anything came of it.

Driving home an hour later, he heard a news report that the Supreme Court had accepted for review a case in DuPage County for Robert Lidster. Ramsell was in shock. “I immediately turn around; I get on the phone with the guy and say, ‘You know what? Come on back in. I think we can help you.’”

At issue was whether a police roadblock, where Lidster had picked up his DUI, was constitutional. “They were stopping cars just to find out if somebody had witnessed this hit-and-run that had occurred a week earlier at about that same time at that location,” Ramsell says.

He found some humor in the 40-page guide he received on Supreme Court oral argument and etiquette. “One of them was ‘Do not look at the clock hanging above the justices. It’s very distracting when they see you looking up there,’” he says. “And ‘Do not bring a legal pad that flips from the top over. Because when you flip the page, it’ll land on the microphone and it makes a rustling noise that drives them nuts.’ … I couldn’t believe how really wound-up these guys are.”

But he also read about the fabled quill pens attorneys receive as mementos of their appearances before the high court. “My focus for those six months was all about that quill pen,” Ramsell recalls. When he finally argued his case in November of 2003—the court eventually ruled 6-3 for the state in 2004—he was thrilled to take home his pen to mark the occasion. Until he got to the courthouse gift shop.

A banner over the entrance read: “Quill pens $1.29 apiece, as many as you want,” Ramsell remembers. “I put so much effort in for a $1.29 quill pen.”

But he did end up buying a pewter holder for his pen. “Of course, that was $100,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s still sitting in my office, and I look at it every once in a while, because I’m proud of that moment.”

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