Richard Essen is the hottest thing to come out of Miami since the "Vice" squad. Love him or hate him -- and, by his own admission, nearly everyone but his clients takes the second option -- Essen is one of the country's most effective drunk-driving lawyers.

Out of 2,500 cases representing alleged drunk drivers, Essen says he has lost only six. His opponents say he's tremendously skillful and personally charming. It's his beliefs that upset them. And they're not too thrilled about his courtroom tactics, either.

Exhibit A: The police stop John because his rear tail light is out. An officer smells alcohol on John's breath. He's arrested and found guilty of driving under the influence, or DUI. "I'm going to make an example out of you," the judge says. John gets a weekend in jail and is put on probation. He also receives something more permanent: a criminal conviction.

Exhibit B: Joe, who's never had a drink in his life, absent-mindedly runs a stop sign. He slams into a school bus, killing eight children. In the majority of states, Joe has committed no criminal offense. At worst, he'll be fined, have his license suspended or be sent to traffic school.

If Joe's crash can be considered an accident, argues Essen, 48, so can any drunk driver's. Even in the worst cases -- where someone dies as a result of a soused motorist -- "it was an unintentional act," he says. "This wasn't a murderer who set out to kill somebody." Consequently, the lawyer is against any jail sentence for those convicted of DUI on a first offense -- a possibility in nearly every state, and mandatory in a third of them.

In this era of increasingly heavier sentences for all drunk drivers, Essen's action is equivalent to coming out against motherhood and apple pie. A Roper poll of southern states conducted for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in March found respondents more worried about drunk driving than any other issue, including drug abuse, AIDS or the economy.

Arguments against Essen start at home. His daughter Elena, 16, decided not to join the family law firm after she saw a school film on drunk driving last year.

"I ran out crying, called my dad, and said, 'I don't understand how you can do this,' " she says. "I couldn't believe he was defending what I called murderers."

Think of drunk drivers, and a tragedy comes to mind: An 18-year-old pedestrian is the victim of a hit-and-run. The driver eventually is traced, receives a $500 fine, a license suspended for six months, and a term in driving school. Because the driver wasn't found until two days later, alcohol can't even become an issue.

Events like these do happen -- the above victim was the son of Diane Holmes, the Dade County, Fla., president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). However, deaths occur in relatively few drunk driving cases. Of Essen's 2,500 clients, only 100 involved a crash, he says; only 35 involved serious injury or fatality.

In 15 cases, either manslaughter or felony charges were brought -- generally unsuccessfully. (Only about 40 of Essen's cases have gone to trial; another 40 clients have pleaded guilty to some form of drunk driving. He doesn't consider those losses.)

Those 15 crashes, Essen feels, were the hardest to accept -- but not for the reason his daughter couldn't. He didn't have any problem taking on the job, "because that man maybe needs a lawyer more than most, but in terms of having to deal with the family of the victim in a very tragic circumstance, it's often heartbreaking."

Nevertheless, "no one starts drinking at the beginning of the evening saying, 'I'm going to go out and drive drunk.' " This, the idea that a drunk driving crash is literally an "accident" -- a word that MADD does not use -- is at the heart of the Essen controversy.

Says Norma Phillips, national president of MADD: "With all the education over the past seven years, people know they should not get behind the wheel with any measurable amount of alcohol. It's not an accident."

Agrees Jill Menadier, assistant state attorney and chief of the DUI Division in Dade County: "Nobody gets in a car intending to kill someone. However, they do intend to drink and drive. And that's the action being punished.

"Just as the alcoholic who pulls a gun and shoots someone in an alcoholic frenzy has committed a crime, so has the alcoholic who has gotten behind the wheel of the car while impaired. To say that all crimes require a specific intent is not true. Manslaughter does not require a specific intent, and yet it's a felony. People can go to jail for 15 years for it."

Essen argues that if you drunkenly pick up a gun and kill someone, it's a purposeful action. But "the drunk driver doesn't say, 'Now I'm going to crash into that car.' ... Most people convicted of drunk driving are problem drinkers, and to throw them in jail does not solve their problem."

MADD's Holmes recounts this incident: "A lady called our chapter because her boyfriend was continuing to drink and drive after having been arrested for it twice. When I asked why he got off, she said his attorney was Richard Essen ...

"This is a case where one of Essen's clients goes out and thumbs his nose at the system. What does he have to do, kill someone before Richard Essen realizes that rehabilitation doesn't work all the time? Jail is a stronger deterrent."

Says Essen: "We're not perfect. What would they do? Put him in jail for 48 hours? Saying jail is a deterrent doesn't make it so. The worst cases we've heard about are multiple offenders who have been in jail."

When Essen was discovered by the media 14 months ago in the form of a Wall Street Journal profile, Essen & Essen was a three-person firm, including Essen's father. Since then, Essen has been on "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," the "Today" show and "60 Minutes," has been written up by numerous newspapers and magazines, and has been on 150 radio shows. Now 18 lawyers work for the firm; last week they were busy moving to "more beautiful, gorgeous" offices.

"He says straight out, 'I went from three lawyers to 18, all because of the media.' He loves the publicity," says a helpful Rick Frishman of Planned Television Arts in New York, Essen's public relations firm.

In November, Frishman was quoted as saying Essen & Essen's business had quadrupled in less than eight months. Ask him why his client wants to do another interview, and you get a blunt answer:

"He'll get more clients. That's the bottom line, I swear to God ... If you're caught drunk driving, you'd be out of your mind not to hire him."

That's precisely what worries MADD's Phillips. These interviews "encourage a few people to think, 'Hey, I can drink and drive and then get Richard Essen to get me off.' "

Essen himself is a little more demure than his publicist. "If business results from {the stories}, I'm delighted," says the lawyer, who consults in cases nationwide. "Being very candid, from the point of view of the ego, {the publicity} is a form of recognition as to the reasonableness of my position ... But understand that 90 percent of the publicity was totally unsolicited."

Essen & Essen is expensive: $3,000 for a first offense, $5,000 for a second, $7,500 for a third. They say they won't represent anyone they believe has a drinking problem unless the client agrees to undertake long-range alcoholic treatment.

Does the lawyer feel he's profiting off the crimes of some of his clients and the sufferings of their victims?

"The prosecutor gets paid, the judge gets paid, policemen get paid," he says. "Would you suggest that anyone who gets into trouble have an attorney work for nothing?"

What makes Essen so successful is his ability to find flaws in the state's case. "We avail ourselves," he says, "of the rules and regulations that exist."

A case that drove many people crazy involved a client who was going the wrong way on a major highway -- at 75 mph. He crashed into a car traveling in the correct direction. Neither driver was seriously hurt; both were rendered unconscious.

The first driver had a blood alcohol limit of 0.19 -- almost double the legal amount. Unfortunately for the prosecution, however, the blood was not drawn until 25 minutes after the crash, at the hospital.

"We won that case because he could have been totally sober at the time of the accident," says Essen. "The state's expert said he had no idea if the man was under the influence -- the alcohol might not have have had time to take effect. So the reading was excluded, and there was no other evidence. We won."

Some other Essen victories:

Numerous cases have been thrown out because the breath test unit used didn't meet the law's requirements.

Another case was dropped because the client was refused permission to use a men's room until he had finished sobriety tests at the police station -- "a constitutional issue," Essen says.

Other cases have been dismissed, dropped or won at trial because the police officer did not state on the citation where the offense took place; because defendants chewed gum, and rules require them to have had no foreign object in their mouth for 20 minutes prior to a breath test; because a client who failed a balance test had a false leg.

"The clients he gets off are on some kind of manipulation of the criminal rules of procedure," says Pamela Thomas, chief of the county court division for the state attorney's office.

"I don't think {Essen and his firm} play by the rules. They make demands on the state that I'm sure they don't even believe are valid. They're just thinking of ways to delay the case." If a DUI case isn't tried within 90 days and it's not the defendant's fault, Florida's speedy trial rules require charges to be dropped.

An example of the sort of arguments Thomas says Essen makes: "They try to convince the court they need the name of every possible witness, and that the state is obligated to provide them, under the rules."

She likens this to "having a crime committed in the Orange Bowl. Do we have to provide the name of every person there to comply with the discovery rules?"

Thomas, who supervises the prosecution of all the misdemeanor, criminal traffic and DUI cases in Dade County, has more general problems with Essen. One is a question of firepower: He has more lawyers than she has prosecutors, and of course her prosecutors have cases besides DUIs.

Furthermore, she says, "A lot of his cases are on appeal by the state. It's not over 'til it's over. If {2,500 wins and six losses} are his final numbers, he's going to have to recount someday, because a lot of these decisions are going to be reversed."

Essen, who says only 10 of his cases are being appealed, says, "I would not ask for something simply to delay proceedings. I request only those things we have a purpose for."

Outside of murder mysteries, the prosecutors almost never have an airtight case. Essen agrees it's not a fair fight. A police officer, he notes, will stop a car without knowing if the driver is a drunk, a drug dealer or just someone making a run to the 7-Eleven. Yet this officer must make instantaneous decisions, while Essen and his team can sit back for months and nitpick them all.

"That bothers me, but that's our system," Essen says. "The only thing I can say is, we need more training, more videotapes {of arrests}, more officers. These people deserve a medal, but at the same time, they do screw up. And a lawyer who does not bring that to the attention of the court is not representing his client."

Instead of jail terms, Essen advocates indefinite license suspension and court-ordered treatment for alcoholism at the defendant's expense.

License suspension is important, MADD's Phillips agrees. However, she argues that a large percentage of convicted drunk drivers will drive even with a suspended license.

"Jail is a sobering experience," she says. "It makes the person feel what they have done is not acceptable in society. And hopefully they'll also get some rehabilitation."

MADD's most urgent wish is this: Remember the victim and his family.

"My son Dean was only a name in the evidence used against the man who killed him," says Phillips. "Victims have no voice in court ... You have the drunk driver who's just killed a member of your family. It's not the slobbering drunk at the scene of the crash but a man in a suit. The court hears all these wonderful things about him, but there's not one thought about the victim's family. It's pretty sad."

That's an appeal to the emotions, says Essen. "Because they lost a loved one, they now want to take revenge on anyone drunk driving."

Forget about revenge, says Phillips; she wants justice. "No amount of revenge can bring my son back. The bottom line is, 50 people today will die because of drunk driving. And until it starts costing the driver as much as it costs the victim's family, we're not going to see an end to this crime."

Even though Essen gets the vast majority of his clients off, he doesn't think they're all innocent. "A substantial number of the people I represent had had too much to drink," he says.

Does he feel bad when he knows that, after their case is dropped, they can drive over to the nearest bar and have a couple of belts for the road?

"There is a moral dilemma, but you can say that for every criminal defense lawyer," he says. "What would you have us do? That's part of the price of democracy -- that some guilty people are going to go free."

His daughter, for one, can't accept that. "I know everyone is entitled to representation," she says. "But emotionally I just have a problem with it."