California DUI: Plea Bargains
Can you handle a plea bargain?
What is plea bargaining?
Plea bargaining (sometimes also referred to as “sentence bargaining”) is a process where a criminal defendant (or his or her lawyer) and the prosecutor reach a compromise, then the defendant enters a guilty plea to a reduced charge or, sometimes, in exchange for the promise of a reduced fine or jail sentence. The “bargain” of a plea bargain is that the prosecutor avoids having to try a questionable case, but still gets to rack up a conviction, while the person accused of drunk driving receives the minimum sentence or, perhaps, only a less serious conviction for reckless driving.
Where does it take place?
Plea bargaining generally takes place over the phone or at the prosecutor’s office, and often at a “pretrial conference” in the judge’s chambers before trial. As part of the process, the judge informally tells you—or your lawyer—the sentence that he or she will impose if you plead guilty.
What’s the point of plea bargaining in a DUI case where there are mandatory sentences?
The era of mandatory DUI sentencing has reduced the incentive to plea bargain. For that reason, plea bargains in DUIs are not as common as they once were. For example, from the accused’s perspective, the incentive to plead guilty to reckless driving is far less under the new law, since the law now requires that a statement be placed on your record that alcohol was involved in the offense, and since your license will be suspended by the DMV for four months or a year even in the face of such a lesser conviction. Also, your insurance company may treat records of such guilty pleas as drunk-driving convictions and cancel, or refuse to renew, your policy anyway. And of course, if you’re charged with a DUI in California again within the next ten years (after having plea bargained a previous drunk-driving charge down to reckless driving), the earlier plea will be used against you for the purpose of increasing both the minimum and maximum penalties if you’re convicted—just as if you had been convicted of drunk driving the first time. Nonetheless, plea bargaining may lessen some of the consequences of a DUI conviction.
Do I need an attorney to plea bargain?
There are various reasons why you’re likely to do better to hire a lawyer to handle your plea bargain. For example, a prosecutor may not be as willing to enter into a plea bargain with an inexperienced defendant who might well do a poor job of representing herself. Also, an experienced lawyer who regularly handles drunk-driving cases will be more familiar with local practices, prosecutors, and judges than you can ever hope to be. Nevertheless, many defendants who have taken the time to educate themselves both as to the law and to the nuances of bargaining have sometimes done as well as attorneys and have saved themselves a legal fee.