Plea Bargaining in DUI Cases

How plea bargaining usually pans out in drunk driving cases.

The vast majority of DUI (driving under the influence) and all other criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining. This article explains what plea bargaining is, how the process is used in DUI cases, and the benefits and drawbacks of resolving your case this way.

What Is Plea Bargaining?

Plea bargaining refers to an agreement between a defendant (the person charged with committing a crime) and the prosecution. Generally, plea bargains (also called "plea deals") involve the defendant agreeing to plead guilty or no contest in exchange for a less serious charge or more lenient penalties than a judge might otherwise impose for the charged offense.

Typically, the terms of plea bargains are in writing and signed at least by the defendant. The written plea form will specify what charge or charges the defendant is agreeing to plead guilty or no contest to. The document will also specify what the defendant's sentence will be (jail time, fines, and the like).

The parties will submit the signed plea form to the judge. The judge generally has the authority to approve or reject the agreement but will typically approve it. Normally, after receiving a plea form, the judge will question the defendant to be sure he or she agrees to and understands the terms. If satisfied that everything is in order, the judge will sentence the defendant consistent with the plea agreement.

When Does Plea Bargain Occur in a DUI Case?

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 effort 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 can defeat the purpose of plea bargaining.

DUI attorneys typically don't like to make plea agreements on the first day of court (although there are exceptions). 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.

What Are Common DUI Plea Bargains?

DUI plea bargains normally involve agreements for less serious penalties than could otherwise result from a conviction or charges that are less serious than a DUI charge. However, plea bargaining can also involve bypassing a conviction altogether through the defendant's participation in some type of rehabilitation or first-offender program.

Plea Bargaining for Lesser DUI Penalties

State laws specify penalty ranges for a DUI conviction. These penalties primarily 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 to Reduce a DUI Charge

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 supporting the DUI charge is somewhat weak.

Plea Bargaining for DUI Alternative Sentencing Programs

Some states have alternative programs for DUI offenders. Participants in these programs generally must abide by requirements such as substance abuse treatment and drug and alcohol monitored. But successful participants also earn certain benefits like the dismissal of the charges.

These alternative sentencing programs are different in every state that has them. However, in some states, participation in alternative sentencing requires the prosecution's agreement. In these states, the option of alternative sentencing often comes into the plea bargaining negotiations.

What Is a Good Plea Deal in a DUI Case?

Every case is different, so what might be a "good deal" in one situation might not be such a good deal in another situation. However, it's important to recognize that plea bargaining is a process of compromise.

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.

Should You Try to Plea Bargain in a DUI Case?

Essentially all cases involved some type of plea bargaining. Even where a defendant is unwilling to accept any criminal conviction or related penalties, it generally doesn't hurt to ask the prosecution to dismiss the charges prior to going to trial. But the question of whether you should ultimately take a plea deal depends on a number of circumstances and individualized considerations.

Before you make a decision on whether to accept a plea deal, you might want to discuss some of the following questions with an attorney:

  • How likely are you to win at trial?
  • What are the likely penalties if you lose at trial?
  • How long is the trial likely to last?

Going to trial takes time (and often money) and typically involves some level of risk. But discussing your case with a qualified attorney can help you make an informed decision on how to best handle your situation.

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