By David Tanner, associate editor
In their very first “Road Law” column, which ran in the August/September 2000 issue of Land Line Magazine, attorneys Jeff McConnell and James Mennella tackled questions from truckers about legal representation, motor vehicle records and CDL suspensions.
Their answers were plainly written, easy to understand, and could apply to anyone out there on the road.
It proved to be a successful formula, as Jeff and James have now penned their 100th column for Land Line to continue their mission of helping truckers navigate the complex world of transportation laws and courts.
“Because we’ve done it so long and because we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day, that’s such a benefit for anyone that calls us,” Jeff says by phone from the Road Law offices in Oklahoma City.
More than 10,000 cases defending truckers in court may seem monotonous to outsiders, but Jeff and James have found their niche. The questions don’t get old, no matter how many times they’ve heard them in 14 years of practice together.
“You don’t hear many new problems. That’s comforting in a way, and it’s monotonous in a way,” Jeff continues. “It makes you the voice of reason. And you can help people discern the law and understand it, and do it in laymen’s terms within an extremely short time.”
Knowing how the laws and the courts work helps Jeff and James seize their opportunities and victories where they can. Not all victories are cut and dried, but some rewards are sweet.
James recalls a case in Joliet, IL, in which law enforcement had been diverting trucks across a restricted bridge and then citing them for weight violations on the other side. Road Law took the case on behalf of 30-40 carriers and blew things wide open in court.
“It turns out it was on federal property where the guy was writing all the tickets, and he doesn’t have the authority to write those tickets,” James said. “It was one of those situations where you feel like you did some justice and did some work for people that was rewarding.”
One of Jeff’s “aha” moments came when a client was threatened with jail if he didn’t plead guilty to a ticket in New Mexico.
“He alleged he was forced to sign (an admission of guilt) under threat of going to jail,” Jeff said. He had been waiting for years for a trucker to come forward and challenge New Mexico’s unconstitutional practice of advising drivers to plead guilty at roadside.
“After three years and an appeal to the New Mexico Court of Appeals in Santa Fe, we were successful in having that penalty assessment ‘conviction’ vacated and the matter reset to a municipal court,” Jeff said.
No matter how many cases they work on or how many columns they write, Jeff and James continue to hear a phrase from clients who expect them to be supermen. That phrase, is something along the lines of “take care of this ticket and make it go away.”
“Take care of … That’s the most widely used and misconstrued phrase in our practice and by commercial drivers everywhere,” says Jeff.
Because any case is rarely that cut and dried, Jeff and James usually stop a caller and work through what the definition of “take care of” really is when it comes to fighting a ticket.
“My ‘take care of,’ ” he begins, “is that you’re not going to get any letters saying you failed to appear in court. … Your ‘take care of’ is that Road Law is going to call you and say the case has been dismissed, there’s no fine or cost, the cop has been fired, and his house has burned down.”
Nonetheless, the Road Law guys have helped countless truckers remain legal and on the road even when faced with serious violations and CDL disqualification.
They start by knowing the ins and outs of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations – the regs manual that every professional is required to operate by – and the eight “serious” violations contained in Section 383.51.
“If you receive a ticket for any of those violations, you don’t just want to send your money in,” says Jeff. “That will get you out of the trucking game as quickly as anything.”
Road Law specializes in those types of violations and in getting them reduced to non-disqualifying events.
“We’ve actually been able to rewrite history in a few cases,” James says.
“If there’s an avenue for relief for the commercial driver, you almost have to take that relief,” he adds. “You almost have to put the guilt or innocence part aside to say, how can I stay qualified to drive? How can I keep my job?”
Road Law continues to help many OOIDA members. The Association began referring members to Jeff and James more than 10 years ago. The relationship blossomed from there, and the magazine column was born shortly thereafter.
OOIDA Assistant Manager of Business Services Kip Hough says his department has Road Law’s number memorized.
“I like them because they specialize in trucking issues,” Hough said.
“You may be able to find a local attorney cheaper, but they may not know the FMCSRs or how a serious violation applies to a commercial driver’s license,” he said.
Personal attention to every case is a must, the Road Law guys say, even if the work requires a local attorney to make a court appearance on a client’s behalf. Jeff and James make it clear that they are not an attorney referral service nor are they a prepaid legal service. They don’t even like to miss calls.
“We almost have to put our hands on every case to figure out what needs to be done with it and where we need to go,” James says. “As Jeff tells the clients, we’re in the trenches fighting every day. We’re not the generals in the war room, strategizing the overall policy of things, we’re trying to keep the guys alive and on the road and qualified to drive.”
Truckers never know what could be around the next corner, but they can be assured that folks like Jeff and James have their back if they need it.
“When you really sit back and think of the contacts we have and the software we utilize and how we put it together, it is unique to be that efficient and effective for people,” Jeff said.
Road Law’s 100th column appears on Page 86. LL