Court Process in California DUI Cases

In 2012 214,828 people were arrested in the state of California for driving under the influence. The state of California has regularly reported the highest drunken driving arrest rate in the country. Driving under the influence is defined as a person operating a motor vehicle when their blood alcohol content is in excess of the legal limit. The legal limit in the United States is set at .08 for drivers 21 years of age and older. For drivers under 21 the legal limit is set at .02, which is the equivalent of two tablespoons of cough syrup. Field sobriety tests, Breathalyzer tests and blood tests can all be used when attempting to convict a person of drunk driving. Those who fail any of these tests are arrested for driving under the influence and will be subjected to the court process to deal with the implications of driving under the influence. 

The Arrest
In order to be pulled over the officer must have probable cause to stop the vehicle. Probable cause can range from the belief that a crime is being committed, to suspicion of drunk driving because of driving patterns. Additionally, a person can be pulled over for other traffic violations and asked to submit to a sobriety test.

Once pulled over for suspension of driving under the influence the driver will be asked to submit to a field sobriety test. Field sobriety tests are actually voluntary and a driver over the age of 21 can politely decline to take the test. Declining to take the field sobriety test can be then used as probable cause for an arrest, however, one can argue that field sobriety tests are subjective and the results can be used against the driver even if they have not been drinking.

During the stop the driver may also be asked to submit to a Breathalyzer test. This test measures the amount of alcohol on the breath, which can then be converted to figure out the estimated blood alcohol content of the driver. Those who blow at or above a .08, over the age of 21, will then be arrested for their violation and given a summons to appear in court. In many cases those who are arrested for a DUI will not be charged bail, but rather are released on their own recognizance. The vehicle may be impounded. Impounding a vehicle simple means the car is taken to the police impound lot and held until the owner of the car can come and get it out. Impound fees can be several hundred to several thousand dollars depending on how long the car is held for.
After the arrest the driver will be expected in court. The court date on the summons will also inform the defendant of where they have to go and what time they are expected. Not appearing for a court appearance can result in a bench warrant being placed on the defendant and they can be arrested at any time. In many misdemeanor cases of DUI the defendant does not have to appear for their first court appearance, a lawyer can appear for them. The defendant, however, will be expected as subsequent court hearings. Felony drunk driving arrests, and second or third offense citations, however, will often require the defendant to be present at the first court hearing.

Court Appearances

In most cases someone who has been arrested on a DUI charge will have several court appearances following their initial arraignment if they choose to plead not guilty. The arraignment is the first court appearance someone arrested for a DUI will have. The date of the arraignment is set on the citation that defendant receives at the time of their arrest. It may be a couple of week, or several months from the date of the arrest. The arraignment, simply put, is the opening of the case with the courts. During the arraignment the facts of the case will be laid out and the defendant will be formally charged with their infraction. This is when a lawyer will plead guilty or not guilty to the charges brought up against the defendant. If pleading not guilty subsequent court appearances will be required.

The subsequent court appearances are considered the time for the defendant, his or her lawyer, the judge and the prosecutor to discuss potential plea bargains and other facts of the case. The court appearances are what lead up to a trial, or a plea bargain and there can be several stretching over the course of several months, or, in some cases more than a year. During these appearances the defendant has been officially charged with a crime, but has not been convicted and thus nothing is yet on the defendant’s record regarding the case.

During court appearances the defendant is expected to show up with their lawyer and wait their turn to see the judge. Depending on the jurisdiction this can take less than an hour, and as much as 6 hours. Many times, multiple court appearances are scheduled for the same time, and defendants are lumped together in a group. Each case is called individually and upon hearing the case the defendant can then leave. During the court appearances a defendant’s lawyer can argue for dismissal of the case, attempt to receive a plea bargain, or express desire for the case to go to trial.

During the initial court appearances a defense attorney can also ask for several types of motions or hearings. One of the most common motions is a “motion to suppress”. A motion to suppress is a motion that asks the judge to throw out all evidence that was obtained illegally or that is otherwise faulty. For example, if a field sobriety test was administered, but the defendant insists their nervousness caused failure, the attorney can ask the judge to suppress that evidence. A defense attorney can also ask for a probable cause hearing, or a hearing that attempts to ascertain the reason the officer stopped a vehicle. Police must have probable cause to stop a motor vehicle, that is, there must be something that is being done illegal for the vehicle to be stopped while it is in motion. A probable cause hearing aims to discredit the initial traffic stop in an attempt to get the case dismissed. An attorney can also ask for a Pitchess hearing, or a hearing that looks at the arresting officer’s complaint record and arrest record. This type of hearing aims to discredit the arresting officer in an attempt to get the case dismissed, as well.

Dismissal of Charges
Many people hope to get a dismissal of charges, however, dismissing a DUI cases is a complicated procedure that can take several appearances. The only hope for a complete dismissal of charges is a belief that the sobriety tests administered actually show a below the limit reading. That is to say, that the person being accused of driving under the influence was, in fact, not driving under the influenced or impaired in any matter. Faulty readings can and do happen and many defense lawyers will argue that the sobriety test administration was wrong.

Another option for dismissal is weakness in the prosecution’s case. For example, poor police work or failure to follow procedure on the police’s part, can create grounds for a dismissal of the charges. Incomplete notes, a lack of evidence and only one type of sobriety test can also help the defense argue for a dismissal of the case. While dismissals are not particularly common on most DUI charges they can and do happen, and they are generally what are first argued for by the defense. When one cannot receive a dismissal of the charges all together the defense can move into the plea bargaining stage. This is an attempt to reduce the charges as much as possible to incur as little damage to the defendants record as possible.

Plea Bargain Options
There are several plea bargain options that are available in many DUI cases. A plea bargain is the option to plead guilty in an attempt to avoid a trial for a reduced sentence or an altered conviction. That means, instead of taking the DUI case to a jury the defendant can accept a plea deal. In most cases a plea deal is beneficial to both the defendant and the court. It ends the process more quickly, and, for first time offenders can avoid some of the more serious implications of a trial conviction for DUI. In the state of California there are some jurisdictions that do not allow for plea bargains on alcohol-related driving offenses, however many do. 

In many first-time offence DUI cases a defendant can accept one of several plea deals. The plea bargain offered will depend on the prosecution’s case. For example, if the defendant is very impaired when stopped he or she may be asked to admit to a DUI for a lesser sentence. In this plea deal the defendant receives a lower fee, or a shorter probationary period in return for pleading guilty to the charges. This is the worst possible plea deal, as all insurance companies will receive notice of a DUI conviction. A mandatory suspension of the driver’s license to operate a vehicle, the need for an interlocking device upon return of the license, and alcohol-related classes will often be required along with court fees and fines.

Lesser charges can be offered if the prosecution’s case is not strong. One of the most common plea bargains is called “Wet Reckless Driving”, or alcohol-related reckless driving. The DMV and insurance companies will receive the information and many people are treated, by insurance companies, as if convicted for a DUI, but taking such a plea bargain often allows the defendant to avoid the mandatory suspension of their license and the interlocking device requirement. Court fees and fines will need to be paid, as well.

Even lesser charges are also available including dry reckless driving, exhibition of speed and “pair of movers”. In each of these plea bargains the defendant will not have any alcohol-related offense on their record, but depending on the offense they plead guilty to fines, fees and points on the license will be incurred. Getting this kind of deal allows the driver to continue driving without an alcohol-related offense on their record.


The vast majority of DUI cases in the state of California are settled before a trial becomes necessary. The settlement are usually plea bargains or dismissal of charges, such as the ones outlined above. While many cases never go to trial, there are some that do either because the defendant chooses too, or a plea bargain deal cannot be reached. In some jurisdictions there are no plea bargain policies for alcohol related offenses, and thus all alcohol related charges must go to trial. The trial process for a DUI is much like the trial process for any other crime.

The first step of the trial processes is the selection of the jury. The defense and the prosecution will work together to pick members that are suitable for a jury. The defense will look for individuals who are sympathetic to the defendant’s plight, while the prosecution will look for jury members who believe in punishment for such crimes. They must come to an agreement on the jury before selection is completed.

Once the jury is selected opening statements are heard from both the defense and the prosecutor. The opening statements will give the jurors a brief overview of the case, and defense and prosecutions take on it. The prosecutor will then present their case to the jury, including any evidence that supports a guilty verdict. The defense then presents their case and any evidence that would support a not guilty verdicts. Closing statements are heard from both in an attempt to, once again, sum up the facts of the case.

The jury deliberates after the closing statement and comes back when they have reached a verdict. A not guilty verdict allows the case to be closed and stuck from the defendant’s record. No further court appearances would be required in such a case. In the case of a guilty verdict the process then proceeds to sentencing. At a sentencing hearing the judge lays down the provisions and punishments to the guilty. This can range from community service to time in a county jail, depending on the infraction.

Punishments and Implications
The punishment for a DUI conviction will depend entirely on the judge and the type of infraction the DUI was. Many first time offender are offered probation and community service, rather than being placed in jail. Fines must also be paid, and mandatory silence suspension are also part of the punishment. Those who are on a more serious offense or are multiple offenders can incur much more harsh punishments. Punishment for multiple offenses often includes jail time, hefty fines and the revocation of the driver’s license. A DUI case that included a minor, or caused harm or injury to others can result in significant jail time, fines and the loss of one’s license permanently.

First time offenders who have been offered a non-alcohol plea deal, have few implications after the court process, but those who plead guilty or received an alcohol-related offense will have the information on their record, which can lead to problems getting professional licenses, a spike of insurance, and potential problems if they re-offend.