The office holiday party winds down.
You finish your drink, say goodbye, slip behind the wheel of your car and pull out.
Suddenly, flashing blue lights spring to life behind you and a police officer is giving you a sobriety test.
A breath test shows a blood alcohol level of 0.09 percent, a number that officially makes you a drunken driver.
Who are you going to call?
If you're like one of every 10 Lee County residents arrested for drunken driving in 2000, you'll call Peter Ringsmuth.
The Fort Myers criminal defense lawyer is a heavyweight when it comes to DUI cases.
Almost all of his clients end up without a DUI on their records.
Of the county's 1,808 drunken driving arrests in 2000, Ringsmuth handled 184 - nearly 100 more than any other lawyer, a records review by The News-Press shows.
Ringsmuth's cases typically end with charges dismissed or reduced to reckless driving. Only a handful - 11 last year - made it to trial. All but one of his clients got off.
Drunken driving cases don't monopolize Ringsmuth's time. He's known for defending people in high-profile cases...
Nearly all of his drunken driving clients are referred by former clients.
Ringsmuth's reputation brings them in. He doesn't advertise on billboards. He doesn't mail letters to people charged with DUIs, unlike other attorneys.
Drunken driving cases appear to be a specialized craft with Ringsmuth - from the one-drink-too-many first-time offenders to drunken drivers involved in serious accidents.
"He does them well," said State Attorney Joe D'Alessandro, whose prosecutors often face Ringsmuth. "He's a good lawyer."
Ringsmuth's record is not accompanied by a big ego.
Indeed, he'd be forgettable in a crowd. If personality were a flavor, he'd serve up vanilla.
Personality doesn't matter when people are in a bind.
They want results and expertise.
Ringsmuth...for example, attended a 40-hour course designed to show police the how- tos of sobriety checks.
Ringsmuth devotes hours to meticulous research. His routine involves the 8-to-5:30 day, a trip home to south Fort Myers for dinner with wife, Deborah. He then returns to the office at 8:30 p.m. for three or four more hours.
"Many nights, I'd drive to the courthouse to pick up a file or meet with the rare client who can't meet during business hours, and the lights will be on in his office," said Mark Ahlbrand, a Fort Myers criminal lawyer.
"It's nice to see even the best are working long hours," he said. "He's very much a compulsive kind of guy."
Ringsmuth only opens up about his reputation after repeated questions - somewhat like a witness on cross examination.
"I give each case I handle the best I've got," he said, tapping a pen on a yellow legal pad in a rhythmic make-a-point motion.
Some defense lawyers try dramatic antics during trials.
Ringsmuth doesn't. He won't raise his voice. He rarely gestures.
He's one of the few lawyers that deputies and police speak highly of.
"Oftentimes you see attorneys challenge the integrity of the officer," said Sgt. Jerry Cantrell, of the Lee County Sheriff's Office. "I've never seen Pete belittle a law enforcement officer on the witness stand. If he attacks you, it's on a technicality."
That's his style.
"If you work hard, do a good job and know your craft, you can help people," said Ringsmuth.
His appearance is as understated as his words.
At 5-foot-8 and balding, Ringsmuth's full, graying beard fosters a scholarly look. A dark suit, white shirt and subtle tie are routine. No jewelry or cuff links - only a watch.
He's not easily distracted.
That doesn't surprise his mother.
"He always did his homework," said Nancy Ringsmuth about her only son and the oldest of her four children.
"Everything was always first class with him - he was that way," she said. "From the time he was small, he liked everything done just right."
Ringsmuth was born in Lowell, Mass., a down-at-the-heels factory city when the lawyer was a child.
The family moved to Illinois and then to Fort Myers in 1960.
Nancy Ringsmuth mothered her brood by day and worked nights as a nurse when the children were small. His father was a Baptist minister who built a church himself in an Illinois cornfield and started a rural community congregation.
Ringsmuth graduated in 1967 with Cypress Lake High School's first senior class and garnered mentions in the yearbook for football and class offices, baseball and the National Honor Society.
Selected as one of six Outstanding Cypressonians, Ringsmuth is described as an A student with dedication to scholarship and sports.
After undergraduate work and then a law degree from Florida State University in 1975, Ringsmuth returned to Fort Myers.
D'Alessandro nabbed him.
"He was a good prosecutor," said D'Alessandro.
Ringsmuth left the state attorney's office for criminal defense work four years later.
Green prosecutors vie for cases Ringsmuth handles so they can learn from him.
He worked with attorney Wilbur Smith and then moved to his own practice.
His tiny First Street office is a no-frills place - its decor tasteful but not extravagant.
When not there he's at home, a 4,400-square-foot brick house that looks like it was plucked from his native New England.
His focus outside of work is family. He doesn't golf, fish, boat, cook or garden. He doesn't spend time reading the newspaper or watching TV. He avoids computers, e-mails and the Internet. He doesn't stop by the Veranda for a drink with other lawyers. In fact, he rarely drinks.
Ringsmuth's selective about how he uses his time.
He has a long-standing policy of not talking to reporters about cases. "The place to litigate a case is in the courtroom not in the media," he said.
He agreed to an interview to demystify what criminal defense lawyers do.
People who spend days arguing to reduce charges for drunken drivers sometimes suffer a reputation problem.
"People feel funny about defense lawyers because at some point they think we ought to reflect the attitude the press says the society has," Ringsmuth said. "So after someone has had a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance, they ought to throw them away. Most people in society are prepared to do that.
"I'm not. If defense lawyers give up on them, then really there isn't a constitutional guarantee."
Ringsmuth bristles when people suggest defense attorneys are lowlifes just in it for the money.
"To suggest that the motivation of an attorney goes to work every day is greed is pretty offensive," he said.
A DUI case with Ringsmuth starts with a base fee that varies depending on circumstances such as a client's prior offenses or whether drugs, a crash, injuries or deaths were involved.
A first-offense DUI usually is $3,000. A DUI manslaughter case can be $30,000 or more.
Although many people regard Ringsmuth as the best DUI attorney, he reportedly does not charge the most.
His clients come from a variety of incomes.
"DUI is the kind of thing that can happen to anybody," he said. "We see all walks of
life - young kids, elderly folks, professional people, people who work in trades.
"It's important for people to have someone out there, for the accused to have someone stand by them."
Areas Of Practice
- Criminal Defense
- Florida, 1975
- U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida, 1977
- U.S. Court of Appeals 11th Circuit, 1981
- Florida State University College of Law, Tallahassee, Florida
- Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Illinois