Find this feature and more member news and profiles in the October edition of Trial Briefs, available exclusively to NCAJ members.
Ben Hiltzheimer is the founder of Hiltzheimer Law Office, PLLC, with offices in Raleigh and Durham. From 2006 to 2011, Ben was employed as an attorney at the federally funded Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. His tenure there included two years in a targeted litigation role focusing on complex forensics and systemic criminal justice issues in partnership with the Innocence Project.
In his capacity as a trial attorney at the Public Defender Service, he represented indigent individuals charged with felonies in the District of Columbia, from their initial appearance in Superior Court through trial. Ben earned his law degree from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the 10th Judicial District Bar Association and the National College for DUI Defense. He lives with his wife and three children in Durham.
What attracted you to criminal defense work?
I’ve thought about this question over the years and I have at least three different answers.
On one hand, I started out specifically as a public defender because I wanted to stand in the shoes of the marginalized and push back against the substantial power of a government that often oversteps its bounds, particularly with respect to minorities and the poor. It was that disparity that first attracted me to this fight, from a core belief that one’s rights shouldn’t be a function of race or socio-economic status.
As I got into the work and it became less abstract, another guiding principle that evolved for me was the more general belief that people shouldn’t be judged solely on the darkest moments in their lives – which is often where I meet my clients for the first time. The system tends to view individuals through the narrow lens of a single act, and part of my job as a defender is to put those acts into the context of an entire human life, with hardships and struggles and often a complicated and tragic story to tell.
Finally, an undercurrent to all of this is that I just don’t like authority. Never have. I don’t like laws that criminalize individual conduct that causes no direct harm to others. I think half the criminal code should be abolished. I think we need a dramatic shift in the balance of power between the police and the people they serve, and that local police should be almost entirely disarmed. Noam Chomsky once said that authority is inherently illegitimate, unless justified, and that the burden of proof is on those in authority. And if that authority can’t justify itself, it should be dismantled.
I think we need to take a step back and question some of our basic assumptions about the role of law enforcement in our lives. I lose crowds pretty quickly when I start talking about my views of, say, the traffic code. But for me personally, I’d rather have more room to breathe and accept the associated risks of living in a society that that is a bit less micromanaged and constrained in the realm of individual behavior. I’ve said from the outset of my career that I’d rather live in a freer society and find a new way to make a living than suffer under the grip of fascism with a full case load.
As for my own role in this thing, to borrow from the classic civil rights speech by Mario Savio, I wanted to find a way to put my body on the gears of a machine that had become too odious to bear. My day-to-day life in the local courthouses may not always feel quite that revolutionary, but that’s what I was after when I chose this path and I try to live up to that ideal through my work.
What career accomplishments are you most proud of so far?
I am proud of the times in my career when I’ve stood up to power when it wasn’t easy. I made a choice early on that I was not in this work to make friends with prosecutors, or judges for that matter, and I do my best to never allow a desire to be liked – or just to get along – to cloud my commitment to calling out abuses of power where I encounter them. That’s not to say that we can’t be professional and cordial with the other players in the system at appropriate times, but there are times when the circumstances call for burning the whole thing down (figuratively, of course). When I encounter those circumstances, I try to remind myself what this work is fundamentally about, dig deep, and lay it all out on the record without worrying about losing friends.
I also take pride in the trials I’ve won for clients who had everything on the line, where I was the only thing standing between the client and what felt like the end of everything for that particular client, whether it was a long and unjust prison sentence or a career at risk. I tend to internalize the struggles of my clients to a degree that I’m sure isn’t healthy, and the truth for me is that it’s the trial victories that sustain me through the day-to-day grind of a job that is often thankless and cruel.
What do you value most about your NCAJ membership?
The community. Criminal defense can be lonely work, especially in private practice without the resources of a public defender office or larger firm. Being a member of NCAJ reminds me that I’m not alone out there on the front lines. It would be difficult to overstate the value of the NCAJ criminal defense listserv in particular, which reminds me of my days at a large PD office where I had access to a brain trust always at the ready when issues come up in trial or I just need a sounding board to keep me sane. The support I’ve received from the NCAJ community and leadership has been invaluable to me personally, and to my practice.
When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your time?
I’m lucky to be married to an incredible woman, Kristin, who is my partner in all things. We have three kids – 6, 8, and 10 – and two dogs, so life is pretty full for me outside of work. On my best days I enjoy watching our kids get into whatever it is they’re getting into, lighting up with curiosity about the world, just being kids. I try to remember for myself what that felt like, to experience the world without all the boring adult baggage of establishment consensus reality.
I also love music, try to check out live shows whenever I can, and spend at least a little time every week with an acoustic guitar, despite my limited talent after 25 years of tinkering.
And when I need to be reminded of what’s important and find a center in all of this, I like to get deep in the woods, somewhere past the point where cell signals reach, and disappear a little bit into the sounds of the forest.