In California, almost all DUIs are misdemeanor offenses, and they follow the same court process as any other misdemeanor. The information below will apply to any California DUI unless it is a felony charge.
The three main stages of a misdemeanor DUI case are:
- The arraignment
- The pretrial conference
- The trial
Most DUI cases never go to trial, however. It is possible to win your case by having it dismissed at any time before (or during) the trial. It is also possible to reach an agreement to plea to a less serious charge.
An arraignment is a short hearing with the judge where you enter your plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest). The court will also read the full charges against you, but if you have a lawyer your lawyer will typically ask to waive this in order to save time.
You will also be read your rights, including the right to a lawyer and the right not to incriminate yourself.
In some cases, the arraignment will also determine bail. Bail is money you leave with the court as proof that you will show up for your trial. It’s only required if you would otherwise be held in custody until the trial date. This is uncommon in DUI cases, so bail is not usually an issue at the arraignment. However, if this is your third (or more) DUI, or there were guns or narcotics involved in your DUI, you may be required to post bail. You should have your lawyer negotiate this for you.
Note: You should already have a DUI lawyer before you come to your arraignment. In addition to giving you proper counsel, having a lawyer means you do not have to appear in person at the arraignment. They can appear for you.
Assuming you are entering a plea of not guilty, and intend to fight the DUI charge, your attorney will now request discovery documents from the prosecutor. These are documents that disclose the evidence against you and allow you to start building your case. Last, the judge will set a date for your pretrial conference.
The Pretrial Conference
Your pretrial conference is usually only a few weeks after the arraignment. The time between the two is when your lawyer is most likely to file motions—requests to the court—that may help your case. Examples of the most common pretrial motions include:
- Motion to dismiss the case, usually for lack of evidence
- Motion to suppress evidence that has been contaminated or obtained illegally
- Discovery motion to get evidence the prosecution won’t turn over
- Motion to split a blood or urine sample to perform an independent test
- A Pitchess motion to reveal misconduct by an officer
These motions could help win your case without going further, or they could result in key evidence coming to light (that will help you) or being removed from the case (if it would hurt you).
The day of the pretrial conference is the most likely time for the prosecutor to offer you a plea deal. This is an arrangement where you agree to plead guilty for a reduced sentence or to a lesser crime. The most common plea bargains for DUI are:
- A DUI with no jail time (assuming you complete your probation)
- Wet reckless, a non-DUI charge that is still alcohol related
Other, more generous plea bargains are less common but do happen. The best plea bargains tend to be offered in first-time DUI cases. If you have prior DUIs, a plea is often designed to simply reduce jail time. In these circumstances, it may be better to go to trial and try to win your case entirely. Your lawyer will advise you as to whether you have a strong chance of winning in court or not.
In some cases, your DUI charge will be dismissed at the pretrial conference. This is usually because of one of two circumstances:
- There was something clearly illegal about the traffic stop or arrest
- Your lawyer has successfully suppressed the prosecution’s most important evidence, and there is not enough evidence left to take you to trial
Most DUI cases are resolved at the pre-trial conference. If your case is dismissed, you are free to go. If you accept a plea bargain, you will formally change your plea to guilty and you will receive your reduced sentence, usually right away.
The DUI Trial
Going to trial is uncommon in DUI cases and it’s not always advisable. Downsides of trial include:
- It is stressful
- It can be time-consuming
- It’s impossible to predict the outcome
However, there are circumstances where it truly is the best choice. Going to trial can be a smart call if your lawyer believes you have an advantage—perhaps because key evidence has been suppressed—or if the prosecution simply won’t offer a satisfactory plea bargain.
The trial has a large number of individuals stages of its own. In short:
- Jurors must be selected, and your lawyer has a chance to object to jurors who seem biased
- Both sides will make opening statements
- The prosecution presents its case first, and the defense goes second. You have a chance to cross-examine all witnesses the prosecution brings.
- After the prosecution has made their case, and before the defense begins its case, your lawyer has a chance to request again that the case be dismissed. This can work if the prosecutor has made blunders of it the evidence they presented is weak.
- Otherwise, once the defense has made its case, the jurors will meet and decide a verdict. The judge delivers the verdict and it is the judge, not the jury, that sets the sentence for a guilty verdict.
The only way you can be convicted is if all 12 jurors agree you are guilty. If even one juror remains unconvinced, it is a “hung jury.” In theory this means you need a whole new trial with a new jury, but in practice it usually means the judge will dismiss your case, and you are free to go.
Have you been charged with DUI? We can connect you with an experienced Los Angeles DUI lawyer and get you a FREE consultation. Fill out the form to the right or call (310) 896-2724 and get your free consultation today.