Drunk driving offenses are among the most common criminal charges in the United States, constituting one-tenth of criminal arrests and up to over one million arrests per year. Driving while intoxicated significantly increases the risk of a traffic accident, which can lead to a litany of additional charges.
If you have been arrested for driving under the influence, you could face a lengthy series of court dates. The following page will inform you about the different steps of a DUI case, various factors that will affect its length, and how a DUI lawyer can help you through the process.
Hiring a DUI Lawyer
If you have been arrested for driving under the influence, you must prepare yourself for what could be a lengthy and challenging legal process. Your first step toward doing so should be finding an attorney specializing in impaired driving cases.
Use a lawyer referral service to look for an attorney near you who specializes in DUI. Your state bar association might provide a referral service. Many states also offer resources to help low-income individuals afford legal help.
Many lawyers offer initial consultations for free or at a reduced cost. While a lawyer may not provide specific legal advice during a free consultation, you can use the meeting as an opportunity to learn about their experience handling DUI cases before deciding whether or not to hire them.
What’s The Difference Between a Court-Appointed Public Defender and a DUI Attorney?
Anyone facing potential prison time who cannot afford private legal counsel has the right to a public attorney. Someone who cannot afford a private attorney will have a public defender assigned to them by the court. A public defender is a bar-certified legal professional and will be a significant asset to your defense.
However, if it is financially feasible to hire one, a private DUI attorney is preferable to a public defender. Public defenders must be prepared to work with clients accused of any criminal offense, meaning they cannot specialize in one area. While they will have the knowledge necessary to handle your case, they may not have extensive experience with drunk driving cases. On the other hand, a DUI attorney will most likely have a deeper knowledge of impaired driving laws in your state, which they can use to argue that your penalty should be reduced or your case dropped. For example, most states have strict requirements that a blood test must meet in order to be admissible as evidence for a DUI trial. If the prosecution’s blood tests failed to meet these requirements, a DUI attorney should be prepared to use that fact to argue for dropped or reduced charges.
Public defenders often have to handle multiple cases in quick succession, sometimes totaling hundreds of cases per year. The Department of Justice suggests that a public defender take on a maximum of 400 misdemeanor cases in one year, amounting to more than one client per day. A private attorney can dedicate more time and attention to your case.
Your DUI case will likely consist of multiple court hearings. The exact number and length of these hearings will vary based on your state and the specifics of your offense.
You will first be arraigned, which can take place anywhere from the day of your arrest to a few months later. During this hearing, a judge will read you the charges you are being accused of and, most likely, ask for your plea. If you plead not guilty, the legal process will continue.
You will likely have at least one pretrial hearing, wherein the prosecution and defense will meet to discuss your charges. Pretrial hearings generally start weeks after the arraignment, with a month between hearings. At this stage, your attorney can submit motions to the court.
If your attorney does not advise you to plead guilty at any point during the pretrial process, the case will move to trial. A judge and jury will determine whether or not you are guilty of driving under the influence. As most DUI offenses are misdemeanors, a trial likely will not take longer than a few days. Every American citizen has a constitutional right to a speedy trial. However, there is no specific federally-imposed time limit. For example, Oregon requires that a defendant be tried within two years for a misdemeanor offense. New York mandates that a court be prepared for a trial (but not necessarily that they commence that trial) six months after the arrest, barring extenuating circumstances.
You can also request a hearing from your state department of motor vehicles. Depending on your state, this may be known as a DMV hearing, an RMV hearing, a suspension hearing, an administrative license suspension (ALS) hearing, or an administrative license revocation (ALR) hearing. At this hearing, you can contest the suspension of your license and any other penalties imposed on your license and registration.
When Will My First Hearing Be?
Your arraignment can take place on the day of your arrest or over a month later, depending on your state. If you are not arraigned immediately after your arrest, you will most likely receive a notice of your first court date by mail.
Why Do DUI Cases Take So Long to Resolve?
Like many criminal offenses, a DUI case can take months to resolve. You may have to wait as long as a month after your arrest for an arraignment and longer for a trial. The length of your trial can vary based on several factors.
Severity of charge
There are multiple different offenses under the umbrella of DUI. Driving with an exceptionally high ABV, engaging in reckless behavior while driving, or having multiple DUI offenses within a short period of time can elevate a charge to extreme or aggravated DUI. An especially severe DUI offense could even be charged as a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
Elevated charges entail more severe punishments than standard DUIs, and they often require the prosecution to present more evidence. Your trial might be delayed to give the prosecution time to gather this evidence, and presenting that evidence could prolong the length of the trial.
If you hurt someone, caused property damage, or otherwise violated another law while driving under the influence, you might face some charges in addition to DUI. These charges can extend the length of a trial.
You may also face a civil lawsuit for personal injury or property damage, which will be handled separately from your criminal trial. Unless you decide to settle, you will have to spend additional time in court to defend yourself against those charges.
You can plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest at your arraignment or pretrial hearing. Pleading guilty or no contest will bring your trial to a swift conclusion. However, it also means that you will accept the full extent of the penalties the prosecution suggested. Pleading not guilty will extend the length of your trial and give you a chance to hire an attorney and defend yourself.
Number of hearings
As discussed in the “Hearings” section, a DUI case has a variable number of hearings. If you decide to contest the suspension of your license, you may need to schedule an additional hearing with your state’s registry of motor vehicles. If your attorney and the prosecution cannot agree on your charges, it might lead to additional pretrial hearings or a trial. Many court systems have backlogs of cases so these court dates might be scheduled months apart.
Blood test results
You can be convicted of driving under the influence without a blood test. Refusing a blood test at the time of arrest can be grounds for penalties. However, if you did consent to a blood test, your prosecution will most likely want to use the results as evidence.
It can be weeks or months before a lab is able to test a blood sample and return the results to the prosecution. The state will likely want to wait until those results are available before going to trial.
Legal Resources for Defendants
If you are being charged with driving under the influence, you most likely have questions about what to expect over the coming months. The following resources will help you educate yourself on state DUI laws, find legal answers from practicing attorneys, and learn about the different components of the justice system.
American Bar Association Free Legal Answers
The American Bar Association’s Free Legal Answers website allows you to directly ask an attorney your legal questions and receive an answer by email. If you have any questions about the legal process that is too specific to be addressed by general help guides, the ability to get one-on-one help may be helpful.
Note that the attorneys with Free Legal Answers can only provide answers to questions about civil law. While they will not be able to discuss a criminal DUI trial, they can answer questions you may have about civil charges for personal injury or property damage.
LawHelp provides information about the legal process for the general public in easy-to-understand language. You can inform yourself about legal fees, how to prepare for a court date, and access affordable legal assistance.
The legal system is complicated and can seem overwhelming. A website explaining in clear terms how it works is an important resource for anyone who finds themselves unexpectedly charged with a criminal offense.
LawHelp also links to legal resources for every American state and territory, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.
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