Most people who are charged with driving under the influence (DUI) don't take their case to trial. Generally, trial is the way to go only if you have a decent shot at winning. If the jury finds you guilty at the end of a trial, the time and money (assuming you hire an attorney) you'll have spent fighting your case will have been for nothing. You'll end up in the same position or worse than if you had pled guilty or no contest—in other words, resolved your case with what's often called a "plea deal" or "plea bargain"—at the beginning of the case.
But, of course, for the average person, it's difficult to know whether you have a real chance of beating a DUI charge at trial. However, an experienced DUI lawyer can normally tell you how strong the government's case is and whether you have any viable defenses.
Here's some of what you can expect if you opt to handle your DUI case by pleading guilty or no contest.
The first court date in a DUI case is normally the "arraignment." At the arraignment, the judge normally asks whether the defendant plans to hire an attorney or wants a court-appointed lawyer. Defendants who have their attorney situation resolved on that first day will typically enter a plea to the charges. Otherwise, the judge might set a new court date for the defendant to come back with an attorney and enter a plea to the charges. In either scenario, the defendant's initial plea is normally "not guilty."
For defendants, there's usually no benefit to pleading guilty at the first court appearance. Generally, plea deals a prosecutor offers on the first day are the same or worse than offers that come later. So, it's typically best to initially plead not guilty and get a new court date a few weeks out or so.
This additional time will give your attorney the chance to review the prosecution's evidence and come up with a legal strategy. Even if you ultimately decide to make a plea deal, this investment of time by your attorney often pays off anyway. With a good understanding of the facts of your case and some legal research, you attorney might be able to get you a better deal by pointing out problems with the prosecution's case and possible defenses to the charges. Prosecutors who have doubts about their ability to prove a DUI at trial are more apt to offer plea bargains favorable to the defendant.
So, in many DUI cases, the defendant ends up entering a guilty or no contest plea at the second or third court date. However, it's possible for a defendant to enter one of these pleas at any point prior to the jury's verdict.
Prior to pleading guilty or no contest to a DUI, your attorney is supposed to go over the consequences of your plea with you. By entering your plea, you'll necessarily be giving up a number of constitutional rights. These rights include the right to remain silent, the right to cross-examine the witnesses against you, and the right to a jury trial.
In court, you'll likely have to sign a form that specifies the terms of your plea agreement—such as fines, jail time, and the charge you're admitting to—and indicates you understand you're giving up various constitutional rights. Oftentimes, these forms have boxes to initial next to a description of each constitutional right you're waiving by entering the plea.
The judge handling your case will typically ask you whether you signed the form and understand the consequences of your plea. Once satisfied that you know what you're getting into, the judge will ask how you want to plea to the charge. You then respond "guilty" or "no contest," depending on which one you agreed to.
When you plead guilty or no contest to a DUI charge, the judge will find you guilty and the court clerk will enter a conviction. This conviction is exactly the same as a conviction resulting from a guilty verdict at trial. Generally, DUIs are misdemeanor criminal offenses. But if the offender has multiple prior DUI convictions or the current offense involves aggravating factors like deaths or injuries, a DUI can be a felony.
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