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A Guide to DUI Arrest and Processes

In California, the "DUI court process" refers to the progression of the case from arrest to arraignment to pretrial to jury trial. Most defendants plead guilty to Driving under the Influence (DUI) or a lesser offense, and a lucky few have their charges dropped before going to trial. After being arrested for DUI, two authorities will hear the case, namely: (1) the court for criminal charges; and (2) DMV for the determination of the propriety of suspending the driver’s license.

A conviction for DUI can lead to serious consequences including service of jail time, payment of fines, suspension of driver's license, and of course, a criminal record.

DUI arrest is divided into stages and it is important to have an understanding of each stage so that you can prepare appropriate legal defenses against your DUI charges. Raising effective DUI legal defenses can reduce your DUI charges (and lessen the penalties) or even lead to dismissal. DUI court processes are as follows:

a.) the traffic stop, investigation on the side of the road, and arrest;

b.) a DMV hearing regarding the suspension of your license;

c.) certain court procedures, such as arraignment and trial; and

d.) sentencing (if a DUI conviction exists)

California DUI Investigation

The first step in the California DUI court process is an investigation. It usually starts when the authorities stop a vehicle after finding probable cause to do so such as by reason of a traffic offense or involved in an accident.

If the police suspects a driver as being under the influence or intoxicated, they usually report the following observations: (1) smelling an alcoholic odor on a driver’s breath; or (2) observing "objective signs of intoxication" (e.g., red bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and a flushed face) on a driver.

After determining that a driver is most likely under the influence of alcohol, an officer will then ask him/her to complete a series of tasks which include the following:

  1. Roadside Field Sobriety Tests (FSTs) and possibly even arrest; or
  2. A Preliminary Alcohol Screening (PAS) test, which is performed on the spot.

Under Cal. Vehicle Code (VC) § 23152 (a), a person may be arrested for DUI based on the officer’s observations [VC § 23152 (a)]

Chemical Tests

An officer may promptly arrest a person and charge him/her for DUI upon failing to perform the series of tasks required of him/her. The arrested person will be taken to the hospital, police station, or jail for the administration of chemical tests. Chemical tests may be in the form of blood or breath test, at the election of the motorists. These tests are crucial because they will determine the actual blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in one’s system. If results show that the arrested person has 0.08% or higher BAC, he/she may also be charged for violation of VC § 23152 (b) (driving with a BAC of .08% or higher).

Take note that taking chemical tests is mandatory and refusal to undergo chemical tests may lead to an additional charge of “refusal.” A refusal charge carries additional DUI penalties, such as a one-year license suspension and two days in county jail [VC § 23612 (a) (1) ]

After the chemical test is completed, the arrested person is usually due for release, either on bail or signing a promise to appear in court on the scheduled date.

The officer will then forward his DUI report to the prosecution office for review. The prosecutor, upon careful review, may either opt to not file the charges or formally charge the arrested person with a criminal offense for DUI.

DMV Processes

As already noted above, two authorities will take cognizance of your case. DMV conducts the administrative hearing in order to determine the appropriate action against a person’s driving privilege.

After the DUI arrest, the arresting officer will notify the arrested person that his/her driver's license will be suspended for30 days. The officer will seize the driver's license and issue him/her a temporary one (the pink form) that will be valid until the suspension is lifted.

The arresting officer then sends the confiscated driver's license to the California DMV, which will suspend the license for 30 days, unless the driver requests a DMV hearing within ten (10) days from the arrest to give him/her the opportunity to contest the suspension of his/her license.

Winning the DMV hearing means that the driver’s license will not be suspended. Otherwise, losing the hearing means suspension of the driver’s license by the DMV. The suspension will last between four months and three years, depending on how many DUIs a driver had in the past, and whether he/she took or refused a chemical test.

California Criminal Court System for DUI

If the prosecutor decides to press DUI charges against a driver, his/her criminal case for DUI will be heard by a judicial body, i.e., the court. The consequences for adverse results in criminal cases are far more serious than that imposed by DMV. Consequences include serving jail time, paying a fine, and having a criminal record.

There are three important stages to a criminal proceeding, namely: arraignment, pretrial, and jury trial.

1.) Arraignment

A DUI arraignment is the first stage of a DUI criminal court proceeding in California whereby first official court appearance is made. During arraignment, the nature of the accusations against an accused will be read to him/her and he/she will be asked to respond how he/she pleas to the charges. The plea could be any of the following:

  1. Guilty;
  2. or Not guilty
  3. "There is no contest."

If a guilty plea is entered, DUI case will proceed to the sentencing phase. But if a not guilty plea is entered, the case moves into the pre-trial phase of the court process.

2.) Pre-trial

Typically, the pre-trial phase of the California DUI court process lasts the longest and can drag anywhere from weeks to months. This is the stage at which an attorney carefully investigates the case and does everything from visiting the scene of the arrest to checking the BAC testing equipment's maintenance records.

If the defendant’s counsel uncovers substantial evidence in his/her favor, the judge and/or prosecutor may reduce or dismiss the latter’s DUI charges. Techniques employed by lawyers may include submission of pre-trial motions and/or entering into a plea bargaining agreement for a lesser offense.

The more common pre-trial motions filed an expert attorney on DUI are as follows:

1. Probable Cause Motion. The law enforcement officer must have legal justification for conducting a traffic stop. Filing this motion effectively contests the validity of the initial stop or arrest.

2. Motion to Suppress Evidence. In the absence of this probable cause, the defendant may move to request that the court exclude any evidence that was obtained illegally or will unfairly prejudice him/her. This is where the Motion to Suppress Evidence comes in.

3. Pitches Motion. One of the ways of casting doubt on the charges against a defendant is to discredit the report or testimony of the arresting officer. A Pitchess motion is a request by a defendant to examine a law enforcement officer's personnel file for evidence of police misconduct. Defense attorneys typically file a Pitchess motion as part of the pretrial process when they believe officers may have acted improperly, such as by using excessive force.

Lastly, one of the more significant events in the pre-trial stage is when the defense attorney attempts to negotiate with the prosecutor to charge the defendant for a lesser offense, ergo, lesser penalties. This is called entering into a “Plea Bargaining deal.” If the defense attorney is not satisfied with the resolution of the case in terms of a plea bargaining deal, he might as well opt to proceed to a DUI trial.

Jury Trial

Going to trial has distinct advantages and disadvantages that will vary depending on the facts of the case. A DUI defense attorney will explain these approaches to the defendant to enable him/her to decide whether a jury trial should be part of DUI court proceedings.

During the trial, the prosecution and the defense will be given the opportunity to present their case before a jury. In order for the prosecution to secure a conviction, the prosecutor must persuade all jurors of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Legal Defenses for California DUI

The defendant has the legal right to challenge a DUI charge with a legal defense beginning on the date of arraignment. A strong defense may reduce or even dismiss a drunk driving charge.

DUI attorneys may use the following common defenses:

  1. The defendant was stopped or arrested by the police without probable cause;
  2. The police made mistakes while administering a breath test, blood test, or field sobriety test, such as when they did not follow protocols set forth in Title 17 of the Code of Regulations;
  3. The defendant was not actually intoxicated or under the influence;
  4. The defendant was not driving or physically controlling a vehicle; and/or
  5. The authorities committed some form of official misconduct.

Any one or a combination of the foregoing legal defenses may apply to the unique set of facts of the defendant’s case. Thus, it is important to communicate with an attorney to thoroughly discuss every possible defense that may be raised during trial.

DUI Penalties for Criminal Conviction

Penalties imposed upon conviction will vary, especially when a defendant is found to have previous DUI convictions. But for a first-time offender of DUI, the following penalties may be imposed:

  1. A misdemeanor conviction;
  2. Misdemeanor probation, ranging from three to five years;
  3. Enrolling in a DUI education program for a period of three to nine months;
  4. Payment of fine and penalty ranging from $1,500 to $2,000 [VC § 23536 (a)];
  5. Serving jail time in county jail for a period of 6 months; or
  6. Suspension of driver’s license for six months.

The intricacies of the issues involved in the foregoing subject matter can lead to unfavorable results if you hire an attorney not sufficiently focused in this area of the law, or otherwise ill-equipped to represent you. Our firm has decades of experience successfully defending clients in cases that are identical to or similar to yours in the law. The earlier you contact us for your appointment with one of our attorneys, the more you will avoid difficulties and problems that may arise hiring a lawyer at the last minute, right before your hearing, or when the deadline is approaching.

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