The Court Process in California DUI Cases


Our California DUI defense attorneys recommend the following four (4) steps to people who have been arrested for driving under the influence ("DUI") in California:

  1. Hire an experienced California DUI defense lawyer;
  2. Request a DMV administrative hearing to challenge the automatic suspension of your driver's license, within 10 days of your DUI arrest;
  3. Explore the potential DUI defenses for your case with your attorney; and
  4. Discuss DUI plea bargaining strategies with your attorney.

These steps are the quick answer to the most pressing questions that many people have at the very beginning of the California DUI court process: "What happens now? What should I do next?"

In addition to these four important steps to take after a California DUI arrest, there are ten important aspects of California DUI cases that you should understand.

Below, our California DUI attorneys answer the following frequently asked questions about the California DUI court process:

If, after reading this article, you have additional questions or would like to confidentially discuss your case, please don't hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. What Happens During a Typical California DUI Investigation?

The investigation is the first step in the California DUI case process.

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 the DUI investigation began, 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 will ask 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) test.

Based on the officer's observations, you will be arrested for DUI under California Vehicle Code 23152(a) VC (driving under the influence).1 

2. What Happens After a California DUI Arrest?

After you are arrested for DUI, 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 be charged with California Vehicle Code 23152(b) VC (driving with a BAC of .08 or higher).2

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 (Vehicle Code 23152(e) VC), you may additionally be required to take a blood or urine test.3

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.4

Refusing a breath or blood test after a California DUI arrest can lead to enhanced DUI penalties

After your DUI test(s) have been completed (or refused), you will be 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 after your DUI arrest before releasing you.

The arresting officer then completes his/her report about your DUI arrest 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?

When navigating the California DUI court process, 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, it is a bad idea to represent yourself in the California DUI legal process. 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 DUI 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 California DUI court process works.

Public defenders

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

Public defenders are often overworked or lacking experience with the California DUI court process.

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 (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 for a public defender to help with your California DUI case.

Private attorneys

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

If you want a top-notch defense in your California DUI case, then you should look for a DUI defense attorney who will invest the time and resources necessary to develop a comprehensive defense strategy. You'll be paying for an attorney who

  • keeps abreast of changes and developments in California DUI law,
  • has excellent negotiating skills, and
  • keeps up with cutting-edge DUI trial strategies.

If you are going to hire a private lawyer, make sure he/she focuses on the California DUI court process. As we previously mentioned, DUI cases are technical and complex. Hiring someone who isn't experienced in this area of the law will 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. What Is the California DMV Hearing Process for DUI Defendants?

Shortly after an arrest for California DUI, the officer will notify you that your driver's license will be suspended in thirty (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.

4.1. Ignition interlock devices (IIDs)

Starting in 2019, DUI arrestees can immediately apply for an "IID restricted license" that would allow him/her to continue driving without restrictions as long as an ignition interlock device (IID) remains installed in his/her vehicles: An IID is a breathalyzer that keeps the car from starting if it detects alcohol.

For a first-time DUI, the IID license lasts four months. For successive DUIs, the IID lasts one year. (California Senate Bill 1046 (2018)).

4.2. DMV hearings and restricted licenses

The arresting officer in your DUI case sends your confiscated driver's license 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 (10) days of your arrest for California DUI or unless you request an IID restricted license (see the previous subsection).

If you request a DMV hearing within the 10-day window, this delays any driver's license suspension until the outcome of the hearing is determined.

The California DMV hearing officer will ask three questions before deciding whether to suspend your license as part of the DUI process:

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

Although the DMV hearing is independent of your DUI 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 driver's license.

DMV DUI 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 California DUI case for court.

Your 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 your California DUI case for trial if negotiations fail.

If you win your DMV DUI hearing, your license will not be suspended (although you could still get a separate suspension if you get convicted of California DUI in court).

If you lose your hearing, your California DUI license suspension will go into effect. It will last for anywhere from four (4) months to three (3) years, depending on (1) how many prior DUIs you have, and (2) whether you took or refused a chemical test.5

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. The key players in a California DUI court proceeding are

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

The California DUI court process begins with arraignment and ends when you are either acquitted of or sentenced for your charges. (That being said, if you are convicted, your DUI case will actually remain open throughout your period of DUI probation and until all of your court obligations have been fulfilled.)

6. What Happens at My DUI Arraignment?

Your DUI arraignment is the first stage of your California DUI criminal court 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 DUI 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 of the California DUI process.

7. What Are the Best 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 DUI legal defenses apply to your case.

Formulating a successful defense strategy is one of the most important phases of a California DUI case.

These defenses are crucial to the pre-trial phase of the California DUI process, 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.

That list is just a small sampling of the California DUI defenses that an experienced DUI attorney can help you to explore.

8. What Are "Pre-Trial Motions," and How Are They Connected to DUI Plea Bargains?

Although prosecutors in DUI cases 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 San Bernardino DUI defense attorney Michael Scafiddi6 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 the point in the California DUI process when the best deals are made.”

The pre-trial phase of the California DUI court process typically lasts the longest--anywhere from weeks to months. This is when your DUI defense 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 DUI charges. Typically the most effective ways to do this include:

  • Running DUI 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 the trial that was illegally obtained, or 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).
  • 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 in your California DUI case more effectively. When your California DUI defense lawyer highlights the flaws in the case against you, the prosecutor becomes less confident and is often willing to reduce your charges to a lesser offense like "wet reckless" or "dry reckless"--or even dismiss your charges.

But if your DUI defense attorney fails to get a satisfactory resolution of the case through plea bargaining and negotiation, it may be time for your DUI case to go to trial.

9. Will I Have a DUI Jury Trial?

Most California DUIs settle prior to trial. But for a significant number of defendants, a jury trial is part of the California DUI process.

The DUI trial itself can be broken down into quite a few phases, including:

  • Jury selection,
  • Opening statements,
  • The prosecution's case,
  • The defense case,
  • Closing statements,
  • Verdict, and
  • 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 DUI defense attorney will explain them all so that you can weigh the pros and cons before you decide whether a jury trail should be part of your strategy in your California DUI case.

10. What Is the Punishment for a California DUI?

In the event that you either plead guilty to a DUI (or another reduced charge) or are convicted by a jury, the judge will sentence you to California DUI penalties--the final phase in the California DUI court process.

The consequences of a California DUI vary a great deal, depending on 

  1. Whether you have prior DUI convictions within the past ten (10) years, and
  2. The facts of your case (for example, whether anyone was injured as a result of you driving under the influence).

The following table summarizes the penalties for various forms of California DUI:

Type of California DUI


1st offense misdemeanor DUI

Up to 6 months in county jail; $390-1000 in fines; driver's license suspension for 6 to 10 months (the defendant can usually continue driving without restrictions if they install an IID for 6 months); 3 or 9 months of DUI school

2nd offense misdemeanor DUI

96 hours to 1 year in county jail; $390-1000 in fines; driver's license suspension for 2 years (the defendant can usually continue driving without restrictions if they install an IID for 1 year); 18 or 30 months of DUI school

3rd offense misdemeanor DUI

120 days to 1 year in county jail; $390-1000 in fines; driver's license suspension for 3 years (the defendant can usually continue driving without restrictions if they install an IID for 2 years); 30 months of DUI school

DUI with injury (misdemeanor)

5 days to 1 year in county jail; $390-5000 in fines plus restitution to injured parties; driver's license suspension for 1 to 3 years (the defendant can usually continue driving without restrictions if they install an IID for 6 months); 3, 18 or 30 months of DUI school

DUI with injury (felony)

16 months to 16 years in state prison; $1015-5000 in fines plus restitution to injured parties; driver's license suspension for 5 years (the defendant may be able to continue driving without restrictions if they install an IID for two or three years); 18 or 30 months of DUI school

Felony DUI (3 or more prior DUIs within past 10 years)

16 months, 2 years or 3 years in state prison; $390-1000 in fines; driver's license suspension for 4 years (the defendant may be able to continue driving without restrictions if they install an IID for a predetermined number of years); 18 or 30 months of DUI school

Call us for help . . . 


If you or a loved one is is in need of help with the California DUI court process, 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.

Additional Resources:

California DUI Process: DMV Hearings vs. Court Proceedings

Legal References:

  1. Vehicle Code 23152(a) VC -- Driving under the influence. ("(a) It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage to drive a vehicle.")
  2. Vehicle Code 23152(b) VC -- California DUI with a BAC of 0.08 or higher. ("(b) It is unlawful for a person who has 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle.")
  3. Vehicle Code 23152(e) VC -- California DUI of drugs. ("(e) It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.")
  4. Vehicle Code 23612(a)(1) VC -- Implied consent to chemical blood or breath testing for DUI [makes it a crime to refuse blood or breath tests after DMV arrest]. 
  5. See Vehicle Code 13352 VC - Conviction for driving under the influence or engaging in speed contests or exhibitions of speed; terms of suspension or revocation of license [penalty imposed as part of California DUI court and hearing process]. 
  6. San Bernardino DUI defense attorney Michael Scafiddi is a former Ontario police officer and has learned all the tricks of the trade of fighting DUIs. Since he used to be a cop, he knows exactly how to negotiate with officers and how far they're willing to go in the California DUI court process.


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