The Court Process in California DUI Cases


Our California DUI criminal defense attorneys have local DUI law offices in Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange County, and all surrounding Southern California areas.

The 10 Phases of a California DUI

Being arrested for a California DUI can be a frightening and overwhelming experience. In order to help make the DUI process less intimidating, our Newport Beach DUI defense attorneys will explain the ten phases of a California DUI case by addressing the following topics:

1. A Typical
California DUI Investigation
2. Your California DUI Arrest
3. How Do I Know What Kind of California DUI Defense Lawyer to Hire?
4. Your DUI and the California DMV
5. What is the California DUI Court Process?
6. What Happens at My DUI Arraignment?
7. California DUI Defenses
8. DUI Pre-Trial Motions and Plea Bargains
9. Will I have a DUI Jury Trial?
10. California DUI Punishment and Sentencing

If after reviewing this information, you have additional questions or would like to confidentially discuss your case, please don't hesitate to contact us.

1. A Typical California DUI Investigation

Typically a California DUI investigation will begin in one of three ways:

  1. You will be pulled over for a traffic violation,
  2. You will be pulled over because of something relating to your car (for example, your headlight was burnt out), or
  3. You had an accident, and law enforcement was called to the scene.

Regardless of how it happens, DUI officers write it up the same way. The officer will report that upon speaking with you, he/she observed 1) the “odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from your breath”, and 2) that you displayed “objective signs of intoxication” (such as red bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and a flushed face).

The officer then asks you to perform a variety of roadside field sobriety tests (FSTs) and perhaps even an on-the-spot breath test, known as the Preliminary Alcohol Screening (PAS) device.

Based on the officer's observations, you will be arrested for DUI under California's Vehicle Code 23152a VC -- driving under the influence.

2. Your California DUI Arrest

After getting placed under arrest, the officer will take you to a hospital, police station or jail for a blood or breath test to measure your blood alcohol level. Breath test readings are immediately available. Blood samples get sent to a laboratory for analysis, so the results usually take at least several days.

If you take a breath test that reveals a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) or 0.08% or higher, you will additionally get charged with California Vehicle Code 23152b VC -- driving with an excessive (BAC).

If your breath test comes back lower than the officer expected, and he/she therefore suspects that you may have been driving under the influence of drugs, you may additionally be required to take a blood or urine test.

If you refuse to submit to a chemical test, you will still get arrested for drunk driving. But you will additionally have a “refusal” allegation added to your charges. A refusal carries additional penalties, including a one-year drivers license suspension and a mandatory two days in county jail.

Once you get placed under arrest, the officer will notify you that your license will be suspended in 30 days. He/she will confiscate your driver's license and issue you a temporary one (the pink form) that is valid until the suspension goes into effect.

After your DUI test(s) have been completed (or refused), you will get booked and released. Depending on the facts of your case and criminal history, you may get released on bail or on a written promise to appear in court on your assigned court date. Often the police will hold you in a jail cell for several hours before releasing you.

The arresting officer then completes his/her report and submits it to the local prosecuting agency for review. After reviewing your case, the prosecutor will either: 1) decline to file charges, or 2) formally charge you with a California DUI.

3. How Do I Know What Kind of California DUI Defense Lawyer to Hire?

You have three options:

  1. Represent yourself,
  2. Go with a public defender (subject to your financial status), or
  3. Hire a private DUI defense attorney.

Representing yourself

Without much exception, this is a bad idea. The old adage “anyone who represents himself has a fool for a client” isn't too far from the truth.

Unless you're an attorney who specializes in California drunk driving defense, you simply won't have the experience and knowledge that are essential to resolving your case favorably. California DUIs are technical and complex and prosecutors and judges are tough on offenders. You really need someone on your side who understands how the DUI court process works.

Public defenders

Public defenders (PDs) know the DUI process. They enjoy established relationships with the prosecutors and judges and are typically experienced criminal defense attorneys. However…

Public defenders (1) simply don't have much time to devote to individual cases, (2) have limited resources, and (3) are chosen for you at random. This means that if you don't trust or feel comfortable with your assigned lawyer, you're pretty much out of luck.

Also, not everyone qualifies for a public defender. If your income or assets are too high, you may not be eligible.

Private attorneys

Despite the common misperception, private DUI attorneys are not necessarily better than PDs. There are plenty of private DUI attorneys who don't exactly lend confidence to the profession.

Another old adage comes to mind…you get what you pay for. If a DUI attorney's price seems too good to be true, it probably is. In exchange for their fee, cheap DUI lawyers will simply plead you guilty to whatever “deal” the prosecution is offering…oftentimes without working up the case or even attempting to negotiate something better.

If you want a top-notch defense, then you should be prepared to pay for it. You'll be paying for someone who will invest the time and resources necessary to develop a comprehensive DUI defense strategy. You'll be paying for an attorney who keeps abreast of changes and developments in the law, who has enhanced negotiating skills, and who keeps up with cutting-edge trial strategies.

If you are going to hire a private lawyer, make sure he/she focuses on California DUI cases. As we previously mentioned, DUI cases are technical and complex. Hiring someone who isn't experienced in this area of the law will unfortunately do you a HUGE disservice.

Think about it…if you were going in for open-heart surgery, you wouldn't want the lead surgeon to be a foot doctor!

4. Your DUI and the California DMV

When the arresting officer confiscates your driver's license following your arrest, he/she sends it to the California DMV. The DMV will automatically suspend your driver's license (after the pink 30-day temporary license expires) unless you request a DMV hearing within ten days of your arrest.

If you request a DMV hearing within the 10 day window, this delays any drivers license suspension until the outcome of the hearing is determined. If you win your hearing, no suspension is imposed (although you could still get a separate suspension if you get convicted of DUI in court).

The DMV hearing officer will ask three questions before deciding whether to suspend your license:

  1. Did the officer reasonably believe that you were DUI?
  2. Were you lawfully arrested? and
  3. Was your BAC 0.08% or above?

Although the DMV hearing is independent of your court case, you still have the right to be represented by a DUI attorney. An experienced DUI lawyer greatly increases your odds of winning the hearing and saving your drivers license.

DMV hearings can be conducted in-person or over the telephone. While a private attorney may conduct this hearing on your behalf, a public defender will not. This means that if you don't retain a private lawyer, you will represent yourself at this hearing.

In addition to giving you a chance to save your driving privileges, the DMV hearing also provides a forum for preparing your DUI case for court. You attorney can subpoena and cross-examine the arresting officer about everything that happened. This often exposes police blunders and weaknesses in the prosecution's case. The transcript of the officer's testimony can be valuable in negotiating a charge reduction in court, or preparing the DUI case for trial if negotiations fail.

If you lose your hearing and the DMV suspends your license, it will do so for a period of 4 months to three years, depending on (1) how many prior DUIs you have, and (2) whether you took or refused a chemical test.

5. What is the California DUI Court Process?

Regardless of whether you win or lose your DMV hearing, your DUI arrest still subjects you to the California criminal court process.

  • You,
  • your California DUI defense attorney (if you hire one),
  • the prosecutor,
  • the judge, and possibly
  • a jury

    are the key players in this forum.

With respect to a California DUI, these people will engage in a variety of procedures to resolve your DUI criminal case. Your court case begins with arraignment and ends when you are either acquitted of or sentenced for your charges.

*That being said, if you are convicted, your case will actually remain open throughout your probationary period and until all of your court obligations have been fulfilled.
6. What Happens at My DUI Arraignment?

Your arraignment is the first stage of your DUI criminal proceedings. This is where the prosecutor gives you your first “offer”. An “offer” is the sentence that the prosecutor recommends and agrees to in the event that you plead guilty to the proposed charge.

The arraignment provides you with your first opportunity to plead guilty, not guilty, or “no contest” to your California DUI charges. If you plead guilty, you will be sentenced, and (with the exception of fulfilling your probation terms), your case will be closed.

If you plead not guilty, you or your California DUI lawyer will be entitled to review and challenge all of the prosecution's evidence. This includes a copy of the police report and access to the maintenance records of the chemical testing instrument(s) that were used.

Although negotiations sometimes take place during the arraignment, they are more actively engaged in during the pre-trial phase.

7. California DUI Defenses

Although California DUI defenses aren't a “phase” of the DUI process, they need to be mentioned. After your California DUI defense lawyer obtains the prosecution's evidence, he/she begins identifying which defenses apply to your case.

These defenses are crucial to the pre-trial phase, which is where the bulk of negotiating takes place. Some of the most common drunk driving defenses include:

  • Illegal or otherwise “flawed” police investigations,
  • Faulty blood or breath testing equipment, and/or
  • Inaccurate scientific calculations.

This list just serves as a brief example. For a more in-depth analysis of defenses, please review our article on California DUI defenses.

8. DUI Pre-Trial Motions and Plea Bargains

Although prosecutors like to say that their best deal is offered at arraignment as an early incentive to “accept responsibility”, we know this isn't the case.

As Michael Scafiddi, one of San Bernardino's top DUI defense attorneys and a former District Attorney puts it, “Once the defense really begins scrutinizing the case…which isn't until after they receive the prosecutor's evidence at the arraignment…they are in a prime position to negotiate. They know the strengths of their case and the weaknesses in the prosecution's. That's when the best deals are made.”

This phase of the court process typically lasts the longest, anywhere from weeks to months. This is where your California DUI attorney will meticulously investigate your case by doing everything from visiting the scene of the arrest to checking the maintenance records of the BAC testing equipment.

The more evidence and issues that favor you, the more likely the judge and/or prosecutor are to reduce or dismiss your charges. Typically the most effective ways to do this include:

  • Running Pre-Trial Motions: Depending on the facts of your case, your California DUI lawyer may run:           
    • A probable cause hearing (to contest the validity of the officer's initial stop of your car),
    • A “motion to suppress” hearing (to ask the court to exclude any evidence from trial that (1) was illegally obtained, or (2) will unjustly prejudice you, and/or
    • A “Pitchess” hearing (to learn more about the officer's complaint history in an effort to discredit his/her report and testimony).

      These are a few examples of the three most common types of pre-trial motions that a skilled California DUI criminal defense attorney may initiate.

  • Plea-bargaining: Once your attorney has gathered all of the evidence, conducted his/her pre-trial motions, and consulted with defense expert witnesses, he/she sits in a position to negotiate on your behalf more effectively. When your California DUI defense lawyer highlights the flaws in the case against you, the prosecutor become less confident and is often willing to reduce or even dismiss your charges.

If that's not the case, it may be time to go to trial.

9. Will I have a DUI Jury Trial?

Although most California DUIs settle prior to trial, a significant number still do go to jury trial. The trial itself can be broken down into quite a few phases:

  • Jury Selection
  • Opening Statements
  • The prosecution's case
  • The defense case
  • Closing Statements
  • Verdict
  • Sentencing

In order to convict you of a California DUI, the prosecutor must convince all twelve jurors beyond a reasonable doubt of your guilt.

There are definite advantages and disadvantages to going to trial that will depend on the facts of your individual case. Your California DUI defense attorney will explain them all so that you can weigh the pros and cons before you decide on your strategy.

10. California DUI Punishment and Sentencing

In the event that you either plead guilty to a DUI (or other reduced charge) or are convicted by a jury, the judge will sentence you. Punishment will vary a great deal, depending on (1) the facts of the case, and (2) your criminal history (with particular emphasis placed on your DUI history).

  • Probation,
  • Possible county jail or California State Prison time,
  • Fines,
  • Court-approved alcohol programs, and
  • A driver's license suspension/revocation

are typically the types of penalties that are imposed in connection with California DUI convictions.

Call us for help

If you or loved one is is in need of help with the DUI court process and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

For information about taking a Nevada DUI case to trial, read our article about taking a Nevada DUI case to trial.

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