What To Expect at Court When Charged with a DUI

After your arrest for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) you are faced with the daunting task of defending yourself on two tracts: Suspension of your driving privilege through the DMV (learn about the DMV process here) and even more critically, defending yourself against criminal charges. The aim of this article is to take as much of the confusion as possible out of navigating the court process following an arrest for misdemeanor DUI.

The Arraignment

The first court date after your arrest will be your arraignment. The arraignment is the stage at which you enter your plea with the court and set future dates in your case. When your case is called, your lawyer will enter a plea of not guilty. Pleading not guilty gives your attorney time to review the discovery (information such as police reports and eyewitness accounts) and determine the factual and legal basis for your defense. The portion of arraignment where you are interacting with the court is very fast and won’t last more than a few minutes. However, it can take significant amounts of time for your case to be called and you should be prepared to potentially spend half a day at court. In certain cases the attorney can appear on your behalf pursuant to a 977 waiver (named for Penal Code section 977(c)). After you have entered your plea of not guilty the court will set dates for a pretrial conference and for a trial.

The Pretrial Conference

The Pretrial, or Readiness, Conference is a chance for the court to meet with both sides, ensure that discovery has been handed over, and deal with motions from either party (the state or your defense attorney). At this point in the process the prosecutor may communicate an offer for a plea agreement. You will discuss the potential benefits and drawbacks of accepting a plea agreement with your attorney. Your attorney will advise you whether they believe accepting the plea is a good idea but keep in mind that ultimately the decision whether or not to settle is yours. If you do accept the plea agreement your attorney will communicate your acceptance to the prosecutor and in turn both parties will appear before the court to convey and formalize the settlement agreement. If you accept a plea agreement this pretrial conference will be your last formalized court date on this case and the date for your trial will be vacated.

If you decide not to accept the plea agreement either because it isn’t a good offer or because you believe that you have either factual or legal innocence your case will proceed to the trial stage. There are two kinds of trials: a jury trial and a court trial. In a jury trial the evidence is heard by a panel of your peers and in a court trial the judge is the only one hearing the case. Your right to a jury trial is a protected constitutional right and you’ll discuss with your attorney what is the right choice given the facts and circumstances of your case.

Jury Trial

Whether or not your presence was required at either the arraignment or the pretrial conference, you will be required to appear at your jury trial. The first thing that will happen is the court will hear in limine motions. In limine (meaning at the threshold) motions are often about evidence that should or should not be admissible in the course of the trial. In Limine motions are heard just before the commencement of trial. The judge will be the only one to hear these arguments and will decide on each motion.

Then a jury will be selected through the process of voir dire. Voir dire means to speak the truth and is a process by which attorneys for both parties ask questions of potential jurors to establish if they have any existing bias that will work negatively for their client. After a panel is agreed on the trial begins with opening statements, continues with witness testimony, presentation of evidence, and finally closing arguments.

Once closing statements are complete, the jury will receive detailed directions on what they must do in determining your guilt or innocence and then they are left to decide. When the jury has made a finding of guilty or not guilty they will convey to the court that they’ve made their decision. The parties will be called back to the courtroom to hear the verdict which will be announced after the judge has been made aware of their decision.

After the Trial: Exoneration or Sentencing

If you are found not guilty this is the end of the court process for you. You will be released without any requirement that you do anything else. However, if you are found to be guilty your case will likely be continued for sentencing. In some, but not most, instances the sentencing is done immediately after the trial phase concludes.

When you appear at court for your sentencing, your attorney will likely present the court with mitigation information to consider prior to the sentence being handed down. What this means is that your attorney will present the court with information that you help compile to show the court that you are apologetic for the violation and what steps you’ve taken to redeem the situation. This is an essential part of your defense and shouldn’t be skipped over.

Appeal

If you are found guilty but believe that you are not actually guilty either because of a factual issue or because of something that happened during the trial, you have the right to appeal your conviction to the Superior Court Appellate Division. Or, if your case was a felony, you have the right to appeal directly to the California Court of Appeals.