How did Miami drivers become the worst in the state?
If clues exist, they're buried inside a mammoth beige building tucked behind palm trees off Flagler Street just South of Doral. Here, down a hallway whiter than a psychiatric ward, are the offices of Alex Hanna — South Florida's most successful traffic ticket attorney.
You've seen his face. He's that swarthy guy wearing a dark suit and a darker expression while thrusting forth a traffic ticket on signs throughout Little Havana and Hialeah.
Behind the front desk, a large sign bears Hanna's dictatorial expression. Past two clerks wearing shirts emblazoned with his picture are hundreds of photographs of Alex Hanna: on the walls, inside the kitchen, on mouse pads. Some images show him holding babies. Others depict him posing with politicians. In picture after picture, he glowers and tells you not to pay your traffic ticket.
At 4 p.m. on a recent weekday, Hanna arrives at his sprawling office — one of nine across Miami-Dade — wearing a gray V-neck and blue jeans. He's balder, thinner, and more smiley than in his advertisements. He's also hugging an armful of Alex Hanna swag, including a mouse pad, a key chain, a baseball cap, two T-shirts, and a miniature bus bench. Each is branded with that iconic picture of him beside the admonishment "¡No pagues ese ticket!"
Don't pay that ticket: It's a choice more South Floridians than ever before are facing. Over the past decade, the number of traffic citations in Miami-Dade has nearly doubled, from 673,264 in 2003 to 1.1 million in 2012, according to state statistics. And for the traffic ticket attorney, a relatively new species of lawyer that acts more capitalist than counsel, this surge has presented an incredible business opportunity.
No one has taken greater advantage of it than Alex Hanna and Mark Gold, two lawyers who, in terms of flamboyance and sweep, dwarf every other traffic ticket attorney in the state. Every year, they together handle roughly 540,000 South Florida traffic ticket cases — one-third of our regional output. "No matter what," Hanna says, "everyone gets a traffic ticket."
Still, the dramatic uptick over the past decade in Miami-Dade has left officials grasping for answers. In Broward, for instance, the number of annual violations has plateaued at 500,000. Statewide, the numbers are also steady: On average, about 4.5 million tickets are issued every year. So what's up with Miami? "I had no idea it's gone up that much," murmured Joe Sanchez, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman. "Well, we do have more people driving here than ever before. Plus more people are moving here, and there are a lot more SunPass violations."
But the real answer, says traffic ticket attorney Frank Menendez, has to do with demographics and immigration, which makes Miami an especially chaotic place to drive. "People come to this country and they don't know our rules or our signs right away," said Menendez, who owns TicketFit. "They drive like they're still in their own country."
Mark Gold, the five-foot-five owner of the Ticket Clinic, was the first one to recognize the lucrative aspect of traffic ticket economics. Because most adults drive, traffic tickets have the potential to affect nearly all of us, offering a tool not especially effective for most lawyers: mass advertising campaigns.
Mark Gold and Mark Gold's chimp
In the late '80s, while in his early 30s, Gold launched his first advertising campaign. He clogged the rock radio circuit and TV airwaves with traffic ticket ads, ignoring the supposition that many lawyers find promotion unbecoming if not positively repulsive. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger once told a cadre of attorneys that he'd rather dig ditches than advertise.
The public, however, bit. And Gold, who then was just about the only attorney in South Florida exclusively working traffic ticket cases, started rolling in cash, though today he declines to specify exactly how much he makes. "That's private," a Ticket Clinic spokesperson said.
But the same iconoclasm that propelled Gold to advertise in the first place soon landed him in trouble. In 1988, he was criminally charged with aiding and abetting the unauthorized practice of law after he admitted to letting an unlicensed law school graduate defend clients in court. Charges were dismissed, but Gold was suspended from practice for ten days. In 1991, a Broward County judge accused Gold of telling "half-truths" and held him in contempt of court after Gold allegedly claimed he'd "just found out about" a DUI video that he, in fact, had already seen.
Through it all, Gold continued advertising, tapping into a new and profoundly fecund industry. "To the best of my knowledge," says law partner Ted Hollander, "he was the first person in the nation to work traffic tickets."
It paid off. Soon the Ticket Clinic was processing 15,000 traffic tickets per month in South Florida. According to a 1988 Miami Herald article, Gold racked up a remarkable success rate defending traffic violators because he questioned the calibration of speed guns and whether cops made mistakes while issuing citations — rarities at that time. Or if someone got busted for driving without a license, he'd try to prove the cops had no probable cause to stop the car in the first place.
Applying standard courtroom procedures to traffic ticket cases made Gold an astonishingly wealthy man. He jetted in a private plane; lived in a five-bedroom, $3.2 million mansion on Rivo Alto Island; and passed his free time by waging legal battles against just about anyone.
One such chance arrived in 2007. That year, the Florida Bar filed a voluminous reprimand against Gold for mailing advertisements to recently cited traffic violators that contained a 17-year-old Sun-Sentinel fluff piece about him. The Bar also said that Gold had launched a Ticket Clinic website ostensibly as an "attorney locator service" to find unassociated lawyers but that, actually, the only lawyer it "located" in Florida was Mark Gold. The attorney entered a conditional guilty plea but also sued the Florida Bar in federal court, only to withdraw the lawsuit in 2008.
Then, in 2011, after Gold divorced his longtime wife, he sued Goldrush strip club because its "ostensible agents" got him so wasted that he became "temporarily unconscious" and "had a complete loss of judgment, rational thought, or the ability to enter into lawful contracts" and wound up spending $18,930 on his credit card for who knows what.
This year alone, he sued a Porsche Cars North America over a $3,222.84 bill and hammered the Sliding Door Company of Florida for delivering doors to his manor that were 78 inches tall — not 80 inches, as he'd requested. (Both of those lawsuits were settled; the 2011 strip club imbroglio, however, is pending.)
Gold now embodies the ethos of a rock star attorney. Months ago, he proposed to a 21-year-old redhead named Chandler Sutherland, who once stripped on The Jerry Springer Show and maintains a steady social media presence that at one point regularly documented getting wasted and attending raves with Gold. The couple separated in late October after Miami Beach Police arrested the lawyer, who was bloodied and bruised, on a felony charge that he'd battered Sutherland. (Gold, through an attorney, disputes the charges.)
Meanwhile, amid Gold's many shenanigans, a new contender in South Florida's traffic ticket industry not only emerged but also surpassed Gold.
Alex Hanna broke into the traffic ticket business in 2001, when he was 31 years old. He says he got into it because his St. Thomas University law school classmates only "wanted to work murders and be like CSI" — but he was thinking business. "I was shunned initially," Hanna says. "No one realized this was a big deal. Everyone was smirking, saying, 'Here comes the ticket guy!'" They stopped laughing when Hanna "stumbled" into radio and began bellowing, "¡No pagues ese ticket!" — an infectious phrase that immediately made him one of the most recognizable characters in Hispanic Miami. Today, 90 percent of his more than 30,000 monthly customers speak Spanish as their first language.
He pays fastidious attention to his own name. Hanna advises potential customers to call 866-55-HANNA, has trademarked "Alex Hanna," and sometimes refers to himself in the third person — despite the nettlesome matter that Alex Hanna isn't his real name. According to Miami court records, it's actually Omelys Rene Abreu.
"All the other traffic ticket attorneys ask, 'How can I be like Alex Hanna?'" he remarks in his Doral office while caressing a seven-foot-tall bald eagle statue made of juniper wood. "My peers, they think of me as a genius when it comes to marketing. We're the benchmark in advertising. I became a media giant in advertising."
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Indeed, Hanna rarely misses a promotional opportunity, no matter how infinitesimal. On a recent weekday, he whips out a black permanent marker and a miniature bus bench that bears his advertisement. Then, without prompting, he says, "People always ask me for this," and signs the bus bench for a New Times reporter.
"¡No pagues ese ticket!" it reads. "Alex Hanna."