As a lawyer specializing in defending those accused of DUI / DWI, I hear this question often. During a free consultation, a client will tell me about the facts of the arrest, the basis for the traffic stop, his or her performance on field sobriety tests (FSTs), and the results of the chemical test , if one was taken. The client often asks me, in all earnestness, “Why bother fighting this?” This is a fair question, but there are several good reasons to fight a drunk driving case.
If you don’t fight your case, if you go into court and plead guilty to drunk driving and throw yourself on the mercy of the judge and prosecutor, there is a 100 percent chance that you will be convicted of drunk driving. I’ll say it again: if you plead guilty to DUI, you will be found guilty of DUI. I guarantee it.
In California, persons charged with driving under the influence (DUI) are presumed innocent. Persons charged with DUI in California are also entitled to a jury trial (not so in some other states). If the prosecutor cannot convince all 12 of the jurors of a defendant’s guilt, there is no conviction.
There are three possible results following a jury trial: all 12 agree on the defendant’s guilt; all 12 agree on the defendant’s innocence, or some vote one way and some vote another. The latter outcome is known as a “hung jury”, and if you happen to be the defendant in a DUI case, that’s a happy outcome, since it likely will mean that your case will be dismissed.
To win your case, you need convince only one of the 12 jurors to vote not guilty. Just one out of 12. The alternative, often times, is to throw yourself on the mercy of a system that has no mercy. Isn’t that reason enough to fight your case?
If you are fortunate enough to be facing a first-offense drunk driving charge, there is another reason to fight your DUI case. Every person that comes to my office facing a first-offense DUI swears that they will never be in this situation again, that the notion of being charged with a second-offense DUI is so remote as to be impossible. Every person who comes to my office charged with a second-offense DUI wishes he or she had fought the first one. Invariably, the first one presented issues that are absent in the second one. The first DUI is the one you want to fight, if for no other reason than ensuring that you are not susceptible to a charge of a second-offense DUI.
In California, there is a ten year “washout” period regarding DUI convictions, meaning that if someone is arrested for a DUI offense within ten years of a prior conviction, the most recent case will be charged as a second-offense. If that second arrest occurs more than ten years later, the second arrest is simply another first-time DUI. (The ten years goes from arrest date to arrest date.) The penalties for a second offense DUI are substantially more severe than for the first. This is why folks are sometimes lulled into pleading out their first-time DUI arrests, and regretting it later. They feel like the consequences of the first-time DUI are bad, but they can suffer through it by believing they will never be in that situation again.
Ten years is a long time. I had a client who had a prior DUI arrest that was reduced to a “wet-reckless”, a reduced charge, but still counted as a first offense for DUI purposes. Nine years, 11 months and two weeks later, she was arrested coming home from her office holiday party. Because the county where she was arrested treats DUI arrests terribly harshly, the plea bargain offer for this professional woman, with no other prior criminal record, was 45 days in jail. We rejected the offer, went to trial, and the case was dismissed following a hung jury, even though her breath test result was .14 percent. We also won her DMV hearing.
Another reason not to plead guilty (or “no contest”, which is treated by the court the same as a guilty plea, although it cannot be used against you in a civil lawsuit) is the prospect of being placed on probation for three to five years. During that time, you will be required to do many things, such as pay fines, attend DUI classes, and so on. One of the terms and conditions of probation in any DUI case is that the probationer cannot drive with any measurable amount of alcohol in his or her body.
This can be a real problem if the second DUI arrest takes place while someone is still on probation from the first. In the case of a probation violation, if someone is accused of violating the condition that they not drive with any alcohol in their body, there is no jury trial. It is up to the judge. And the judge doesn’t have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge only has to be convinced by a preponderance of the evidence. This is not the same high standard of a criminal case – it’s a much lower standard, which has been described as just tipping the scales in favor of one side or the other. Being on probation is, potentially, a recipe for disaster. It is not a responsibility to take lightly.
Thankfully, we live in a country that has Constitutional safeguards. You have the absolute right to aggressively fight your DUI case. If you or someone you care about has been charged with drunk driving or driving under the influence of drugs (DUID), please consult with an attorney that specializes in defending drunk driving cases. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
It is far better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.