The vast majority of DUI (driving under the influence) and all other criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining. In other words, the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest in exchange for a less serious charge or more lenient penalties than a judge might otherwise impose for a DUI conviction. Here are some things to know about DUI plea deals.
Generally, plea bargaining can take place at any stage of a DUI case. It's even possible for a defendant and the prosecution to reach a plea bargain in the middle of a trial. For instance, should the arresting officer unexpectedly become unavailable to testify at trial, the prosecution might come to the defendant with a generous plea deal in an effect to salvage their case.
However, in most DUI cases, plea bargaining occurs toward the beginning of court proceedings. The prosecution's main motivation for making plea deals is to resolve cases without having to put in a lot of time and energy. So, for prosecutors, having cases drag on defeats the purpose of plea bargaining.
DUI attorneys typically don't like to make plea agreements on the first day of court. It often pays to spend some time reviewing the police report and other evidence for weakness in the prosecution's case and possible defenses. After all, by convincing the prosecution that it could be difficult to prove the DUI charge in court, the defense may be able to obtain a more favorable plea deal.
State laws specify penalty ranges for a DUI conviction. These penalties generally depend on how many prior DUI convictions the offender has. For example, the penalties for a first DUI conviction in California include $390 to $1,000 in fines and up to six months in jail. So, a California prosecutor might offer a first offender a plea deal involving penalties at the lower end of this range—perhaps, $500 in fines and little or no jail time.
Plea bargaining for a less serious charge is sometimes another possibility. In DUI cases, the less serious charge is often a reckless driving charge. When a DUI charge is pled down to a reckless driving charge, it's commonly called a "wet reckless." Generally, a wet reckless is considered a good deal for the defendant. Consequently, prosecutors might be willing to offer such a plea deal only in the least serious cases or where the evidence is supporting the DUI charge is somewhat weak.
For courts and prosecutors, resolving cases through plea bargaining is primarily about efficiency. Without plea bargaining, courts couldn't process all the cases on their calendars. There simply wouldn't be enough time or resources for every case to go to trial. But courts and prosecutors still want to hold people accountable for breaking the law.
Defendants, on the other hand, are typically looking to minimize the consequences of their DUI arrest. Plea negotiations offer an opportunity to reduce the possible penalties that could result from a conviction at trial. Plea deals also reduce the time a defendant has to spend in court dealing with a DUI charge.
A plea deal is essentially a compromise that benefits the government and defendants. Of course, each side tries to tilt the deal in their favor. But in most cases, the prosecution and defendant are able to reach a resolution that everyone can live with. And when this doesn't happen, taking the case to trial is always an option.