Motions are official requests to the judge, asking him or her to enforce certain rules. In a DUI case, the single most important motion—and the one most often used to win the case—is called a “motion to suppress.”
A motion to suppress asks the judge to block a piece of evidence. If the motion succeeds, the evidence is no longer allowed in the case at all. That means the prosecutor cannot draw on it to make their argument against you, and the jury cannot be told about the evidence if the case goes to trial.
This is a powerful move. A single motion to suppress can change the course of your entire case. For example, imagine if you were given a breath test that “proved” you had more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in your system. That piece of evidence alone could be enough to convict you of DUI. But, if the judge suppresses the breath test, the prosecution suddenly has a much weaker case. You might walk free with all the charges against you dropped.
How do motions to suppress work?
The basic idea of suppression is that if evidence was not obtained properly, it cannot be used in court. In other words, the United States as a country, and the state of California, have decided that it’s better to let someone go free rather than to corrupt the court process by using evidence that was gathered illegally. This is a bedrock of our justice system.
Legally, the rules for suppression motions are laid out in California Penal Code 1538.5. Following this law, courts will typically grant your motion to suppress if the evidence was obtained through an unlawful “search and seizure.”
Search and seizure refers broadly to any method of collecting evidence for a criminal case. The evidence may be unlawful if:
- The police had no warrant to search you or your vehicle, and had no legal justification for doing so without a warrant,
- Police had a warrant, but there was something improper or “deficient” about the warrant itself,
- The warrant only gave permission to search for a different kind of evidence—for example, they were searching your car for guns and found beer bottles on the floor,
- There was no probable cause, or
- Most importantly, the search was carried out in a way that is unconstitutional or illegal
This last one if key because it is used often in DUI cases to challenge key pieces of evidence against the driver.
From a legal perspective, “search and seizure” includes many things. Actually searching your car is a form of search and seizure, but so is the breath test or blood test that police gave you after your arrest. Essentially, any evidence gathered in your DUI case is subject to these rules.
What are examples of motions to suppress in a DUI case?
Here are examples of how a “search and seizure” can be unlawful and thus challenged with a motion to suppress:
- If you were pulled over based purely on your race (racial profiling), all the evidence in your case can be challenged.
- If the breath test device used in your DUI was not properly calibrated, the test results could be suppressed.
- If a blood test lab mishandled your blood sample (Title 17 violations), these results could also be challenged.
- If officers failed to warn you that refusing the breath test/blood test was illegal, you could challenge the validity of your “refusal.”
- If you were not read your Miranda rights, all the answers you gave during questioning may be challenged. In other words, your own incriminating statements could be challenged as valid evidence.
These are just a few examples. Any time a procedure, law, or constitutional protection is violated during or after your arrest, the evidence it leads to is improper and is open to challenge.
How and when is a motion to suppress filed in a DUI case?
Motions to suppress are almost always filed with the court before the trial ever starts. A good DUI defense lawyer will start their work by looking for irregularities in the evidence against you, especially how the breath, blood or urine test was conducted. They should discover any potential problems early on and will file a motion to suppress at the earliest chance.
The motion is usually presented in one of two circumstances:
- At your preliminary hearing. This is a short court hearing within a few weeks of your arrest. Both sides are present and so is the judge. Typically your lawyer will present their motion to suppress at this point; the prosecution can respond and the judge will make a decision.
- At a separate suppression hearing. If your preliminary hearing was waived, or if the problems with the evidence weren’t discovered until after it was over, your lawyer may file the motion anyway, and a special hearing will be called to discuss it. Again, the prosecution can respond before the judge makes a decision.
In many cases the judge will decide quickly whether to grant the motion. If the motion is denied, it cannot be filed again for that same piece of evidence, for the same reason. (You could still bring forward other motions to suppress on other grounds.) If the motion is granted, the evidence is “suppressed” (thrown out of the case) and cannot be used. This often leads to having your entire DUI case dismissed.
Why would the prosecution drop my DUI case?
There’s no guarantee that suppressing a piece of evidence will get your DUI dropped. But a prosecutor’s job is to win cases. To do that, they need evidence. If some of their evidence is suppressed, they have to re-evaluate whether they would win in front of a jury. Often, a prosecutor’s case hangs on just one or two pieces of evidence; taking away just one of those could leave them crippled. Under these circumstances, they may drop the charges against you. Even if they don’t drop the charges entirely, they may suddenly offer a much more lenient plea bargain. This is why motions to suppress are the most powerful weapon in the DUI defense arsenal.
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