What You Can Expect If You Go to Trial on a DUI Charge

Main stages of DUI trials, including choosing a jury and the presentation of evidence.

By , Attorney · University of Tennessee College of Law

When you're charged with driving under the influence, you have a right to a trial. Like most civil and criminal cases, many DUI cases don't go to trial because the prosecution and the defense reach an agreement on how to resolve the case. In the context of DUI cases, this type of agreement is often called a "plea deal" or "plea agreement." But if you're facing DUI charges and can't or don't want to make a plea agreement with the prosecutor, your case will generally go to a trial.

This article tells you what to expect if you end up taking your DUI case to trial.

DUI Bench Trial or Jury Trial

Anyone who is charged with a DUI has the right to a jury trial. Defendants can waive their right to a jury and ask the judge to decide the case (called a "bench trial"). However, most defendants who go to trial opt to have a jury determine their guilt or innocence. In the majority of cases, defense attorneys believe they have a better chance of beating the charges with a jury.

Choosing a Jury in a DUI Case

Choosing a jury is the first stage of a jury trial. This process is called "voir dire," which means to "speak the truth." Jurors are picked from a group of citizens who are called for jury duty. Although a jury for a DUI case will ultimately have anywhere from six to 12 jurors (depending on the jurisdiction), jury selection starts with a larger group that is sometimes called the "jury pool." Typically, there are at least 20 people in the jury pool.

With the jury pool present, the judge makes a short statement about the case and introduces the prosecution and the defense. The judge might also dismiss some of the jurors right away for reasons such as medical issues, financial hardship, language barriers, and the like.

Then, the attorneys get to ask the potential jurors questions. The questions are generally aimed at uncovering whether the potential jurors have any knowledge about the case or any life experiences that could affect their ability to be impartial and fair in deciding the case. Basically, both sides are looking to identify which jurors are most likely to decide in their favor and eliminate the jurors who are likely to go the other way.

Jury selection is a process of elimination. The attorneys aren't allowed to select jurors they like but can dismiss jurors using what are called "challenges for cause" or "peremptory challenges."

Challenges for Cause in Jury Selection

Judges always deal with challenges for cause first. Each side has an unlimited number of challenges for cause. However, to get a juror dismissed this way, the attorney must convince the judge there's good reason to believe the juror would be biased or is otherwise unqualified to serve on a jury.

The judge will listen to each challenge for cause and decide whether the juror should be excused.

Peremptory Challenges in Jury Selection

Once the judge rules on all the challenges for cause, the attorneys get to make their peremptory challenges. A peremptory challenge allows either side to dismiss a juror without a reason. However, these challenges can't be used to discriminate based on race or sex.

Unlike with challenges for cause, peremptory challenges aren't unlimited. Each side has only a specific number of peremptory challenges. For example, some jurisdictions give each side three peremptory challenges in misdemeanor cases and six in felony cases.

Swearing in the Jury

Once the jury selection process produces the required number of jurors, the judge will dismiss the rest of the jury pool and the court clerk will swear in the selected jurors. The judge then instructs the jurors on the law and their obligations.

Opening Statements in DUI Trials

The actual DUI trial begins with the opening statements. An opening statement isn't supposed to be an argument about who should win and why—it's basically a sneak peek of what each side believes the evidence will show or fail to show. In a DUI case, the attorneys will generally discuss witness testimony and physical evidence such as blood and breath test results.

Prosecution's Case (Evidence) in a DUI Trial

In all criminal cases, the prosecution presents evidence before the defense. This part of the process is sometimes called the prosecution's "case-in-chief."

A defendant is innocent until proven guilty, so the prosecution must prove the defendant is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." Jurors are supposed to assess reasonable doubt based on reason and common sense. If the jurors aren't "firmly convinced" or "morally certain" of guilt based on the evidence, they're supposed to find the defendant not guilty.

DUI laws differ by state, but generally, the prosecution must prove that the defendant was:

Generally, the prosecution will try to prove these elements by calling witnesses and introducing physical evidence.

Prosecution's Witness Testimony in DUI Trials

In most DUI trials, the prosecution will call only one or two witnesses. The arresting officer is usually the first witness the prosecution calls to the witness stand. Every case is different, but officers often testify about the defendant's:

  • driving behaviors (such as swerving)
  • appearance and actions during the stop (like bloodshot eyes and slurred speech), and
  • performance on field sobriety tests.

If the defendant took "a chemical test" (blood, breath, or urine test), the officer might also testify about the chemical test procedure.

In cases that do involve chemical tests, the prosecution might call an expert witness to explain the results to the jurors.

Prosecution's Physical Evidence in DUI Trials

In many cases, the prosecution will also use physical evidence to prove a DUI charge. Physical evidence might include things like photographs, videos, bar receipts, and alcohol or drug found in the vehicle or suspect's person.

Generally, prosecutors introduce physical evidence in conjunction with a witness's testimony. For example, the prosecution might ask the judge to admit blood test results during the testimony of an expert witness from the lab that tested the blood.

Defense Case in a DUI Trial

The defense begins to build the case for acquittal during the prosecution's case-in-chief. Cross-examining prosecution witnesses and successfully objecting to the introduction of physical evidence can undermine the state's case before the defense puts on its case-in-chief.

When the prosecution finishes presenting evidence, the defense can—but doesn't have to—present their own evidence. Again, we're talking about witness testimony and physical evidence.

In some cases, the defendant might choose to testify. However, jurors aren't allowed to consider a defendant's decision not to testify as evidence of guilt.

Since the driver's level of impairment is often a contested issue in DUI cases, it's common for defense attorneys to call an expert witness who can undermine the chemical test results or give an opinion as to the likely effects of the substances ingested by the driver.

In some cases, the defense might also present physical evidence to the jury. Again, things like photos, videos, and the like.

Closing Arguments in a DUI Case

In closing arguments, the prosecution and the defense each try to convince the jury that they should win. Closing arguments are generally the last time the attorneys address the jurors. The prosecutor will typically sum up the evidence and explain how the various facts support the charges. The defense, on the other hand, will ordinarily point out any deficiencies in the prosecution's case and ask the juror to find the defendant not guilty.

Jury Instructions, Deliberations, and the Verdict in a DUI Case

After closing arguments, the judge instructs the jury on the law that applies to the case. The jury then goes to the jury room where they elect a foreperson. The foreperson will guide deliberations and announce the verdict.

Once the jurors reach a verdict, they return to the courtroom and inform the court clerk. The judge typically reviews the verdict before asking the foreperson to read it out loud.

If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, the case is over. A guilty verdict is the equivalent of a conviction. Following a guilty verdict, the judge will sentence the defendant according to the state's DUI laws.

If the jurors can't agree on a unanimous verdict, the judge will declare a mistrial. Essentially, a mistrial starts the whole process over again. The parties can negotiate a plea deal, the prosecution can dismiss the case, or, if all else fails, the parties can retry the case.

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