Most Nevada DUI defendants prefer to take a plea bargain rather than go to trial. Trials are time-consuming and expensive, and favorable outcomes cannot be guaranteed. Though sometimes going to trial may be in the defendant's best interest and might result in a "not guilty" verdict.
In this article, our Nevada criminal defense attorneys explain the process of "taking a Nevada DUI case to trial." Continue reading to learn the stages of a Nevada DUI trial.
Stages of a Nevada DUI Trial
The length and complexity of DUI trials in Nevada depend on the severity of the charges and the amount of available evidence. The following summarizes all the steps of a trial for the Nevada crime of drunk driving.
Arrest & Arraignment
Most DUI cases start with a cop pulling over someone for a traffic violation or arriving at an accident scene. The cop may then ask the DUI suspect to take a preliminary breath test and to perform Nevada field sobriety tests. Depending on the results the cop may arrest the suspect for DUI and book him at a local jail.
Following the arrest, DUI suspects then elect to take a Nevada DUI breath test or a Nevada DUI blood test. (Drivers suspected of the Nevada crime of DUI with drugs must take a blood test.) Afterwards DUI suspects are usually released from jail on O.R. or Nevada bail.
After a DUI arrest, prosecutors examine the police reports and chemical test results. (Note that blood test results take several weeks to come back.) Prosecutors then decide whether there is enough evidence to press DUI charges. If so prosecutors charge the driver during a court hearing called an arraignment in Nevada. Arraignments typically occur a few weeks after the arrest.
DUI defendants usually do not have to go to arraignments as long as they retained an attorney to appear for them. It is at the arraignment that prosecutors give the defense attorney all their evidence (called "discovery"). The defense attorney will then enter an initial plea of "not guilty" for the defendant. Finally, the judge will schedule the next court date (usually a few weeks later).
After a DUI arraignment, the defense attorney and prosecutor will try to negotiate a resolution to avoid trial. The defense attorney's first strategy is to try to get the entire case dismissed by showing that there is insufficient evidence to sustain a DUI conviction. Note that prosecutors rarely agree to dismiss DUI charges unless there is a glaring problem with their evidence.
The defense attorney's next strategy is to try to get the DUI charge reduced to the Nevada crime of reckless driving. Note that prosecutors cannot legally reduce DUI charges unless their case has evidentiary problems. But if this strategy works and the defendant agrees to plead to reckless driving, the case may end without a trial. (Note that in rare cases, it may be possible to reduce a Nevada DUI to "careless driving.")
If the prosecutor refuses to dismiss or reduce the DUI charges, the defense attorney has a final strategy: To accept the DUI charge on the condition that the prosecution agrees to minimum penalties. If the prosecution agrees and if the defendant accepts this resolution, the case can end without a trial.
But not all DUI defendants agree to take a plea. Sometimes it is because they were wrongly accused of DUI and want the opportunity to prove their innocence in court. Sometimes it is because defendants believe that the prosecution will not be able to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. Either way, DUI cases that do not settle will continue to trial.
The DUI pretrial phase, which occurs alongside negotiations, is when the prosecution and defense prepare for trial. They interview witnesses, gather evidence, investigate, and strategize. They also file "pretrial motions" asking the judge to rule on various evidentiary or procedural issues prior to trial. Laughlin criminal defense attorney Michael Becker gives an example:
Tom is booked at the Henderson Detention Center for DUI after failing the breath test. While Tom's attorney investigates the case, he discovers that the breathalyzer used on Tom was defective. Tom's attorney then files a Nevada motion to suppress evidence with Henderson Justice Court asking the judge to prohibit the prosecution from introducing the breathalyzer results into evidence. It the judge grants the motion, the prosecution's case against Tom will be weakened and may result in the prosecution dropping the charges altogether.
Note that misdemeanor DUI cases tend to last just a few months. But the process is longer in Nevada felony DUI cases because the court requires a Nevada preliminary hearing prior to trial. Preliminary hearings are like "mini-trials" where the court determines whether the prosecution's case is strong enough even to proceed to trial.
Note that all defendants have the right to a speedy trial within a few weeks after charges are filed. However, most defendants prefer to draw out the process to give their attorneys ample time to prepare their defense. Speedy trials typically only occur if the defendants are in jail unable to bail out.
Note that defendants facing only a misdemeanor DUI charge do not have the right a Nevada jury trial. Instead they may have a Nevada bench trial, where the judge ("the bench") renders the verdict. Meanwhile, defendants facing a felony DUI charge may elect to have either a bench trial or a jury trial.
Jury trials begin with jury selection (called "voir dire"). The trial then proceeds with both sides delivering opening statements summarizing their arguments. Then the prosecution calls witnesses such as the arresting officer for "direct examination." Afterwards the defense attorneys may "cross-examine" these witnesses.
When the prosecution rests its case, the defense attorney will ask the judge to dismiss the case based on insufficient evidence. If the judge refuses, the defense may call witnesses to the stand for direct examination. Then the prosecution may cross-examine these witnesses. Once the defense rests its case, both sides deliver closing arguments.
Note that the chemists who conducted the evidentiary blood tests (if any) used in the case must be qualified as an "expert" by a Nevada court before their findings can be admitted into evidence through a written affidavit or declaration. (Valenti vs. DMV, 131 Nev. Adv. Op. 87 (2015).)
Finally, the jury (or judge in a bench trial) will deliberate whether the prosecution proved the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They will then render a guilty or not guilty verdict. But if the jurors cannot unanimously agree, it is a "hung jury" and the judge will declare a "mistrial." The prosecution may then re-file the DUI charges and try the case again later on.
If the defendant is found not guilty, the case is instantly dismissed. Otherwise, the judge will sentence the defendant. Sometimes sentencing occurs immediately after the verdict is given. In more serious cases, a Nevada sentencing hearing is held on a separate day several weeks later.
During the sentencing hearing, the defense presents "mitigating evidence" to show that the defendant has a good character and therefore deserves a lighter sentence. Meanwhile the prosecution presents "aggravating evidence" to show that the defendant deserves a harsher sentence. Finally the judge imposes penalties on the defendant.
Nevada DUI penalties depend on a variety of factors including whether the charge is a misdemeanor a felony, the defendant's DUI history, and whether anyone was hurt or killed by the incident. Penalties may include:
- community service
- incarceration in a county jail or Nevada State Prison
- Nevada DUI School
- a Nevada Victim Impact Panel (such as a MADD lecture)
- a Breath Interlock Device in the defendant's car
- driver's license suspension
For more specific information on penalties for first-, second-, or third-time DUIs, or DUIs causing injury or death, see our article on Nevada DUI Penalties.
Convictions are not necessarily the end of a DUI case. Defendants may file a Nevada motion for a new trial if major errors may have occurred during the first trial. And/or they may file an appeal. Learn more about Nevada appeal laws.
Everyone has a police "record" which shows his/her arrests and criminal convictions. Potential employers who run background checks may choose not to hire people with criminal records. Therefore it is in defendants' best interests to petition the court to "seal" their criminal record as quickly as possible. "Sealing" means to make the record invisible to the public.
When a criminal record may be sealed depends on the outcome of the original case. Defendants who get their case dismissed with no conviction may begin the record seal process immediately. Otherwise the waiting period to seal a misdemeanor DUI conviction is 7 years. Felony DUI convictions may not be sealed. Learn more about sealing Nevada DUI records
Nevada DUI arrests create a case not just in criminal court...they also create a case in the Nevada DMV. But whereas criminal court can levy fines and order jail, the only penalty the DMV can impose is a driver's license suspension. However, it may be possible to contest the license suspension at a Nevada DMV hearing.
Nevada DMV hearings are like "mini-trials" where the defense attorney introduces evidence and cross-examines the arresting officer. However DMV hearings are harder to win than criminal trials because the prosecution's standard of proof is much lower than beyond a reasonable doubt. Still, DMV hearings are valuable "dry runs" for preparing for a criminal trial.
DUI defendants have a seven-day period to request a DMV hearing after the blood- or breath tests result come back. Defendants who request a DMV hearing receive a temporary license to drive with until after the hearing is over and decided. If the defendant loses the hearing, the DMV may suspend the license. The length of the suspension depends on driver's DUI history:
- a first-time DUI results in three (3) months suspension,
- a second-time DUI results in a one (1) year suspension,
- a third-time DUI results in three (3) years suspension
Note that the DMV case is completely separate from the criminal case. Even if the prosecution drops criminal charges, the DMV may pursue the DUI case against the driver. And even if the driver wins a DMV hearing, the driver can still get his/her license suspended if he/she is ultimately convicted of DUI in criminal court.
Legal representation in Nevada DUI cases
DUI cases are extremely confusing and detail-oriented. Therefore it is recommended that DUI defendants hire private counsel to represent them. Public defenders have very high caseloads and often cannot give defendants personalized attention. And defendants who represent themselves lack the experience and skill to ensure a solid defense and protection of their rights.
Accused of DUI? Call an attorney . . .
If you are facing DUI charges in Nevada, call our Las Vegas DUI Defense Attorneys at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) for a free consultation. We will discuss all your options including negotiating a favorable resolution or taking the "Nevada DUI case to trial."
We represent clients throughout Nevada, including Las Vegas, Henderson, Washoe County, Reno, Carson City, Laughlin, Mesquite, Bunkerville, Moapa, Elko, Pahrump, Searchlight and Tonopah.
Also see our article about violating DUI probation in Nevada.
For information about the California DUI court process, read our article on the California DUI court process.