Eagle County attorney Bruce Carey calling it a career

Criminal defense attorney reflects on decades of practice

Longtime local criminal defense attorney Bruce Carey is retiring after about 37 years in the valley.
Bruce Carey/courtesy photo

Bruce Carey is a familiar face in Eagle County’s courthouse. He’s going to cut back those appearances as he eases into retirement.

Carey, 66, has practiced law for 37 years in Eagle County, first as a prosecutor, then as a criminal defense attorney.

Carey landed in Colorado in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs. He got to know the state, and its mountains, during that time. Out of the Army, he used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Colorado, then law school at the University of Denver.

After law school, he landed at the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s office in Georgetown, as an intern, then as an assistant prosecutor. That internship led to an assistant prosecutor’s job in the district, in Eagle.

Carey said his decision to go into private practice was prompted due to developing habits that included “eating and living inside.”

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Carey prosecuted, and won, Colorado’s first reckless skiing case. In civil court, a settlement netted those attorneys more in fees than Carey’s yearly salary at the District Attorney’s office.

“That was not lost on me,” he said.

When Carey hung out his private practice shingle, he first worked with a group in Vail that shared office space and administrative services. That led to a few other partnerships, including with fellow local defense attorney Jim Fahrenholtz.

While the county’s population has more than doubled since the 1980s, Carey said there’s always been business, particularly from visitors who come, get in trouble, and need a local attorney to handle their cases.

But Eagle, and Eagle County, were much different places in the 1980s and 1990s. Eagle in the 1980s had just a couple of restaurants and only a handful of bars.

There wasn’t much retail shopping, either.

“Somebody told me there was a mall in Glenwood (Springs),” Carey recalled. “All they had was a Kmart and a JCPenney.”

Making them prove it

Carey said his job with all his clients is to make prosecutors prove their cases, and make sure the police did everything right.

Errors can result in a better outcome for a client.

But cases sometimes end up before a judge.

Carey recalled defending a client in Vail Municipal Court in which the arresting officer didn’t do a great job. In fact, Carey said, the case should never have been prosecuted.

Referring to the old “Andy Griffith Show,” Carey compared the officer to that show’s bumbling deputy Barney Fife.

Carey told the jury that if the officer had been “A little less like Barney and more like Andy, we wouldn’t be here.”

Word trickled down to the county courthouse, and people there started calling the officer “Barney.” “I drove slowly through Vail for the next couple of years,” he said.

The vast majority of criminal cases are settled outside of a courtroom. Carey noted that Eagle County has about 1,000 criminal cases per year. The county court can only handle about two cases per month.

The Eagle County Justice Center is a far better facility than the one where Carey tried his first cases.

No a/c? No problem

The old courthouse, at the end of Broadway in Eagle, was a far more compact facility. And it didn’t have air conditioning.

Carey recalled that he once prosecuted a case in the summer. The jury apparently was in no mood to spend any more time than necessary in a small room, and returned a guilty verdict in just seven minutes. As a defense lawyer for a defendant in Rifle, Carey won a jury case with just five minutes of deliberation.

Lawyering isn’t all of Carey’s life, of course. He spent 17 years on the board of the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo, and for 14 years led winter-season nature walks at Beaver Creek.

He also occasionally works with clients just getting out of jail or off probation. Too many people with drug or alcohol convictions fall too quickly back into the habits that led to trouble with the law in the first place.

Carey isn’t sure what retirement holds. He’s had health problems over the past few years, so it’s definitely time to slow down.

For now, he’ll help partner Eric Johnson with cases the two have split, but won’t take any new cases himself.

After that, the future is wide open.

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