A bifurcated or “split” trial allows you to face your current DUI charge on its own, without mention of previous DUIs, so that the jury is not prejudiced. After your trial, the issue of whether your prior convictions affect your sentencing will be handled separately.
Any time a person is arrested for DUI in California, the prosecution will always look into their previous arrest record. The biggest reason for this is because DUIs in California are “priorable,” meaning that each new DUI gets a tougher sentence than the one before it. The prosecutor will want to prove that you had a prior DUI in order to get the maximum penalty.
But this creates a problem. If the prosecutor talks in court about your previous DUI charges, it makes you look bad. By the law, you should only be found guilty if you drove under the influence this time, but an emotional jury may convict you purely because of your past record. They’ll decide based on their feelings, not the evidence.
This means it’s important to keep talk of your previous DUI out of the courtroom. And that is why your lawyer may request a bifurcated trial.
What is a bifurcated trial?
Bifurcating a trial basically just recognizes that there are two separate issues at stake:
- Are you, or are you not, guilty of breaking a California DUI law?
- Do you, or do you not, have any prior DUI convictions that could affect the sentence?
Your trial is really only about the first issue. If you are found not guilty, then the second issue is irrelevant—there’s no sentence for your priors to affect.
Thus, your lawyer may request that the judge split off the two issues entirely. This what is meant by a bifurcated (“split”) trial. First you’ll have your normal criminal trial, that deals only with the current charge. Then—if and only if you are convicted—the issue of your priors will be tried separately.
How do I get the judge to bifurcate my trial?
You have to make a case that bringing up your past DUIs will bias the jury against you. If you can show this, the judge should grant your request. The court doesn’t lose anything by bifurcating the trial; it’s really just a change in procedure to help you get a fair jury.
But the judge will also consider whether the prior DUIs might have value as evidence in your current case. The prosecution will argue that they need to bring up your priors to establish a “pattern” of drunk driving or substance abuse.
Ultimately, the judge makes the decision. If your priors are from years ago, or are very different from the current case, your motion to bifurcate should be granted.
(Your lawyer may also file a motion to strike, which prevents the previous charges from counting against you at all. But if it’s denied, bifurcating the trial is the next best thing.)
How much does a bifurcated trial help my DUI case?
It doesn’t prove you innocent. However, it can have a dramatic effect:
- The prosecution has less ammunition to use against you
- The jury may view you more favorably
- You only have to deal with the current charge, not your personal history
In some cases, this could be the difference between winning your DUI case and losing it.
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