Pleading Guilty to DUI

What's the effect of pleading guilty?

If you’ve been charged with a DUI and your fairly certain that you’ll be convicted, you might be considering pleading guilty to save the hassle and expense of fighting the charge. You will likely be convicted of a DUI:

  • If you had a very high blood alcohol content (BAC). Anytime your BAC is over .08, you will likely be convicted of a DUI. But the closer it is to .08,  the more room there is for argument. If your BAC was closer to .11,  your chance of conviction is almost certain and if your BAC was closer to .20, you will be convicted.
  • If the evidence clearly shows you were intoxicated and driving. Whenever a police officer or a witness testifies that you were drunk and that you were operating a vehicle you will likely be convicted of a DUI.  This is especially true if when the field sobriety tests and chemical tests back this up. This is true even if your BAC was less than .08.  

When Do You Plead?

In your arraignment you probably received another court appearance date for the purpose of deciding whether you plan plead guilty or go to trial. It would not at all be unusual at this appearance for you to say you plan to go to trial, even if you know that you’ll probably be pleading guilty. That’s because you can always plead guilty right up to and anytime during the trial. Of course if you’ve already arranged a plea bargain (or are able to arrange it at the conference) you can wind up the case then and there. But if you don’t have a plea bargain that you realistically think is possible, then you would explain that you think you could obtain a favorable verdict at trial and want a trial date.

At this point, depending on the state, court and judge, the judge may become involved and push for a plea bargain (which the prosecutor would likely go for since he or she has to live with the judge day in and day out). Or, the judge may take a hands-off approach and simply schedule a day for the trial. You may be pressured to explain just why you think you would win at trial. If you have done a careful analysis of your case and have spotted several areas where you think the prosecution has a weak case, you may be tempted to spill the beans. Unfortunately if you do end up at trial, you’ll have alerted the prosecutor to your strategies and your chances for success will have been diminished. All things considered, it’s usually better to play your trial strategy as close to your vest as possible.

 What Happens When You Plead Guilty 

If you do decide to plead guilty, you will likely be handed a form by the bailiff (or your attorney if you have one) on which you waive all of your constitutional rights in this case—such as your right to remain silent, your right to cross-examine witnesses, and the right to a jury trial. There will a number of disclosures on the form regarding the possible punishment you face and its consequences. In some courts, the judge goes over the form with you in detail in open court while other judges refrain from putting it on the record. The reason for the form (and the open court dialog with the judge) is to make sure you can’t come back later and challenge the conviction on the grounds you were not well informed about your rights.

Conviction Upon Entry of Plea

Once you plead guilty, you have been convicted of the offense. Sometimes people who plead guilty don’t understand that this counts as a conviction and when later asked whether they have been convicted of something they answer no. Now you know. A guilty plea equals conviction—just as if a jury found you guilty.

Once convicted, powerful policy considerations make it very difficult for you to withdraw your guilty plea. If you are not represented by an attorney when you enter your plea (or you are being pressured by a public defender to enter the plea), you’ll want to make sure that you are doing the right thing in your particular context. If you can find a private attorney to look at all the facts of your case and agree that a guilty plea is in order, you may be doing yourself a favor—even if the attorney wants a couple of hundred dollars to assess your case. 

Excerpted and adapted from Beat Your Ticket: Go to Court & Win, by David W. Brown (Nolo).

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