In honor of next week's Woodward Dream Cruise, I would like to share what was one of the biggest adventures of my entire legal career. For those of you unfamiliar, the WWDC is a car event in Michigan where the local communities along Woodward Avenue pretend that they didn't hate it when kids like us spent our evenings racing on Woodward and hanging out in the bank parking lot by the Dairy Queen for hours. On the third Saturday in August each year, countless classic, sport, muscle and other cars show up to tool up and down the Avenue. Estimates suggest that more than a million people show up and the party – which is focused on the Saturday – begins earlier and earlier each year. Cruisers now routinely show up on the Monday morning preceding and clog up the road and the nearby parking lots. If you like classic cars, you love it.
In one of the earlier years of the Dream Cruise, I was listening to the local classic rock station and a guy called in to complain that he had gotten a ticket for spinning his tires. It was going to cost him. I called the station and told them I would represent him for free. His ticket was in a local court where I spent a lot of time and I figured it would be an easy process. And just for fun, I told the hosts I'd represent anyone who got a ticket at the Cruise for free. Give out my fax number on the air? Sure, why not?!
My secretary spent the next few days filing appearances for the 50 or 60 people who responded. The cases ranged from Pontiac at the north end down through Bloomfield, Birmingham, Royal Oak, Ferndale and Berkley. Since the Dream Cruise was policed by the local, county and state law enforcement, I found tickets written by the three agencies. Some were kinder than others. Some people were ticketed – for doing a burnout – with an "unsafe start," a pretty harmless ticket. There were a few careless drivings and speedings thrown into the mix.
I went to each court with a stack of files and stood in the lobby calling out names. Soon, I had a bunch of guys (interestingly, I never had a female defendant in all my years of doing this) standing around me looking a little sheepish. I gave them the lecture about what I would try to do for them – any form of reduction would be good since most of them would have had a hard time fighting the ticket they were given. I then walked into the prosecutor's office and said, "I have these files," and rattled off the names. The prosecutors were happy because we could bulk out a part of his day. Ten files in five minutes. In the various courts I attended I managed to get some kind of break for everyone and everybody was happy. J.J. and the Morning Crew were kind enough to have me on their show a few weeks later to talk about my experience.
The next year, someone called and asked if I'd be doing my "Free" legal service again for the Dream Cruise. It had gone so smoothly, I said Sure. A newspaper or two called to interview me. The local ABC affiliate had me on their evening news. They gave out my fax number too. The Cruise came and went and my fax machine went into Hellcat mode. The years I did this kind of blend together but I'm sure you'll understand. One year I represented 100 people. But the first year was the honeymoon.
The police did not like my little experiment. One police officer told me I was encouraging people to break the law. I guess he thought that there were people out there pulling hole shots, telling themselves, "Steve Lehto will get me out of this!" An assistant prosecutor told me that his boss had told him "No deals for that Dream Cruise guy." And, the cops – who had kind of turned a blind eye to some of the hijinks in earlier years – had stopped writing marshmallow tickets. Now if you spun your tires you were likely to draw a RECKLESS DRIVING ticket. In Michigan, that's six points, a $500 fine, possible jail time and a variety of other indignities.
Mixed in with all the cases I handled that year were two reckless driving tickets issued under the purview of the prosecutor who was cutting me no deals. Both would go to trial in front of juries in Royal Oak. The judge called us all to the bench before the first trial and asked why we hadn't worked out a plea deal. I pointed to the prosecutor who told the judge of the "policy" regarding the Dream Cruise. He shook his head and told us to proceed.
I did my best to pack the jury with car guys. I asked if any of them owned classic cars. One hand went up: he and I talked about big block Camaros for a bit. That first trial ended in a NOT GUILTY. The second trial ended in a hung jury. At one point the court clerk had to go into the jury room and tell them to quiet down; court workers in nearby offices were being disturbed by all the yelling coming from the room. They told the judge they could not reach a verdict. Most prosecutors would have agreed to some kind of deal at that point but there was that "policy." So, we had a retrial. Sadly, we lost that one. My guy was found guilty of reckless driving. He was accused of spinning the tires and fishtailing onto Woodward from a side street. The occupants of his car testified the car did not fishtail and the lone cop – the only prosecution witness – said that it did. This, even though he placed the car at the wrong intersection and had written so many tickets that day he clearly could not remember which one was which.
I no longer do the Free Woodward Dream Cruise tickets. I had a blast doing them, talking to the car owners in the hall before court about what kind of car they had and whether they had cruised Woodward back in the day. Had they ever seen a 1969 Dodge Charger like this one, doing endless loops between 12 Mile and Maple?
It just got to the point where it was clear that my involvement wasn't helping the accused. The prosecutors were punishing my clients for having hired me. Now, if you go to the Cruise, don't break the law. And if you get ticketed, hire a good attorney. You may be able to get the ticket reduced but you never know.
Steve Lehto has been practicing consumer protection and lemon law for 23 years in Michigan. He taught Consumer Protection at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law for ten years and wrote The Lemon Law Bible. He also wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device both published by Chicago Review Press. Follow him on Twitter: @stevelehto