Criminal Law

DUI DWI Trial Process

Most people never intend to drive drunk. Some have a few drinks, not realizing their driving will be impaired. Their mistake in judgment leads to a drunk driving arrest - leaving them shocked and scared.

A drunk driving charge is very serious. You'll definitely need a lawyer if you were arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI).

An attorney familiar with defending drunk driving cases in your area can guide you through the trial process. It will help to know what's going to happen in court before talking to your lawyer.

Arraignment

The first court hearing in your DWI case is likely to be an arraignment. The judge will read the charges against you and ask for your plea. Unless you carefully discuss the entry of a different plea with your attorney, you'll want to plead "not guilty."

The judge will decide whether to reduce your bail amount. The judge may agree to release you on your own recognizance without requiring additional bail.

The prosecutor gives your lawyer - a court-appointed lawyer or a private defense lawyer - copies of evidence about your case. This could include police reports and blood alcohol test results, and any other documents important to your case. This is call discovery.

Dates for pretrial motions and your trial will be set by the judge.

Preliminary Hearing

At a preliminary hearing, the judge decides whether the prosecutor has enough evidence to possibly convince a jury that you were driving while intoxicated. While the procedures differ greatly from state to state, this is your attorney's opportunity to size up the prosecution's case and give you more information about your options.

Plea Bargaining

Plea bargaining involves negotiating a deal with the prosecutor. It's discouraged in DWI cases and is even outlawed in some states. Many legislators feel DWI is such a serious crime that plea bargaining is inappropriate.

There may be cases, however, when an attorney can reach a deal with the prosecutor to have a DWI charge reduced to a less serious charge, such as reckless driving. It may also be possible to reach a compromise by agreeing to plead guilty to the DWI charge in exchange for the prosecutor recommending a less severe sentence than if the case went to trial.

Pretrial Motions

Your attorney will likely bring motions to have particular damaging evidence kept out of the trial. Examples of evidence that defense lawyers try to eliminate include:

  • Physical evidence such as beer cans or alcohol bottles taken from your car
  • Blood alcohol testing results
  • Any incriminating statements or confessions you made to the arresting officer

Trial

Although many DWI cases are resolved earlier, it's possible you'll find yourself at trial. If so, the trial is likely to proceed in a predictable manner, with:

  • Jury selection, unless it's a trial by judge, which is fairly unusual in DWI trials
  • Opening statements by your attorney and the prosecutor, outlining the evidence each intends to present
  • Testimony from witnesses, including police officers
  • Cross-examination of the witnesses by both attorneys
  • Motions from your attorney after the prosecution has presented its case, sometimes asking the judge to dismiss the case for lack of evidence
  • Closing arguments from both lawyers summing up the evidence and explaining how the law applies
  • Jury instructions (by the judge) on the law the jury must apply
  • Jury deliberation
  • Jury verdict

Sentencing

If you're convicted for DWI, the judge may sentence you to:

  • Pay fines
  • A short jail stay
  • A long jail term if you caused an accident that injured or killed someone
  • Probation or a suspended sentence, with restrictions on where you can go and what you can do (like being barred from drinking)
  • Community service, working with local nonprofit community organizations
  • Drug or alcohol counseling or outpatient or intensive inpatient rehab
  • Install an "ignition interlock" device on your vehicle which prevents you from operating your vehicle if your blood alcohol content is over a certain level, typically .02
  • Other sentence at the discretion of the judge within certain guidelines

You might also lose your driver's license or have it suspended for a certain period of time. Or, you might get a conditional license with restrictions on when and where you can drive.

The best way to help yourself through the legal process is to hire a lawyer you trust. It's important to contact a DUI/DWI defense attorney as soon as you're charged in order to achieve the best results for your case.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How can an attorney help if I know I'm guilty of driving while intoxicated?
  • What are the penalties for a first DUI/DWI offense in my area?
  • Is there a way to challenge the blood alcohol test results?
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