Should You Hire an Attorney for a DUI Case?

Things to consider in deciding whether to hire a lawyer for a drunk driving charge.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you've been charged with driving under the influence (DUI) and the facts of your case are fairly straightforward, it might seem like a waste of money to hire a DUI attorney. However, DUI law is complicated and the facts of every case are different. So, it's hard for the average person without any legal training or experience to know if there are any viable defenses or ways to minimize the consequences of a DUI arrest. And a mistake or oversight in handling a DUI charge can easily lead to a bad result that could have been avoided.

Whether you go with a private DUI lawyer or a public defender, you're generally better off with an attorney than you are representing yourself. This article addresses some issues you might want to consider when deciding on your legal representation.

Public Defenders Compared to Private Lawyers

Generally, defendants who can't afford an attorney are entitled to court-appointed counsel. Court-appointed attorneys are typically from a public defender's office. But when there isn't a public defender available, the court will normally appoint a "panel attorney." Panel attorneys are private lawyers who are paid by the court to represent indigent criminal defendants.

Defendants often complain about not getting enough attention from their court-appointed attorney. Court-appointed counsel—especially public defenders—are usually very busy. So, it can be difficult for a defendant to get lots of one-on-one time with an appointed attorney.

But for DUI cases in particular, there's another issue with having an appointed lawyer that could put you at a disadvantage. A DUI arrest generally leads to two separate proceedings: a criminal court case and administrative license-suspension proceedings through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). A court-appointed attorney handles your criminal court case but not DMV proceedings. Private lawyers, on the other hand, normally take care of both parts of your case.

Hiring a Private DUI Attorney

In most areas, there are lots of attorneys who handle DUI cases. So, choosing who to hire can be difficult. Of course, there's no perfect formula for finding a good DUI lawyer, but here are some suggestions you might want to consider.

  • Attorneys specializing in DUI law. Plenty of attorneys can represent you in a DUI case. But there are also attorneys who focus on DUI defense. You may be well served to go with an attorney who specializes in DUI law over one who just takes the occasional DUI case.
  • Amount of experience. How long an attorney has been in practice isn't always the best measure of quality. However, it's still a factor you'll want to consider. Lawyers with at least a few years of practice experience in your area should have a good idea of what works and what doesn't in the local courts and DMV.
  • Trials and plea bargains. Most DUI cases end with a plea bargain. An attorney's knowledge and skill can certainly come into play in reaching a good deal. But if you want to take your case to trial, you might want an attorney who has a decent amount of trial experience.
  • Free consultations. Many DUI attorneys offer prospective clients a free initial consultation. If you're thinking of hiring someone, it's probably worth taking the time to meet face to face before deciding. Meeting an attorney in person gives you the opportunity to get your questions answer and find out whether there any compatibility issues.

Whatever your process for finding an attorney, it's important not to delay. Even though your court date might be a ways off, it's often necessary to take immediate action to challenge the DMV's suspension of your license. So, getting in touch with an attorney as soon as possible after a DUI arrest is crucial.

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