San Mateo, Redwood City
Watching television or listening to the radio, it would be easy to incorrectly form the opinion that California has an epidemic of driving under the influence (DUI) cases. The media is constantly reporting DUI fatalities and famous celebrities arrested on suspicion of DUI. Organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) bring attention to this issue and are constantly pushing for tougher penalties. The truth is that the number of DUI fatalities and DUI arrests have actually declined over the past thirty (30) years. According to California government records, the number of alcohol involved traffic fatalities has dropped an astounding forty-one (41%) percent since 1988. Over the last ten (10) years, the DUI statistics have flattened, yet California legislators are still considering increased penalties.
IRRATIONAL DUI LEGISLATION & PENALTIES
The punishment for driving under the influence is constantly being increased. In 1990, California reduced the legal limit from .1% to .08% blood alcohol content. California was only the fourth state to implement such a low blood alcohol limit. Also in 1990, California implemented a mandatory driver’s license suspension law for DUIs.
California also recently changed the number of years prior DUIs are counted against you from seven (7) years to ten (10) years. California legislators are now in the process of considering the use of ignition interlock devices for first time offenders and reducing the blood alcohol legal limit to .05 percent.
THE COURT PROCESS
DUI cases involve administrative, civil and criminal law. Administrative law applies to the DMV hearing process in determining whether or not a person will keep their privilege to drive. Civil law applies both to your driving privileges and any restitution or damage claims in DUI cases. Criminal law applies, because a DUI is a criminal charge that can result in either a fine, probation, or imprisonment, among other penalties. There are three levels of criminal cases: infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. An infraction is a charge which is punishable by a fine only. A misdemeanor is a charge which is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to one year in county jail. A felony is a charge which is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of more than one year in state prison.
DMV hearings must be set up within ten (10) days of your arrest. You will need an attorney familiar with administrative law to be successful at a DMV or administrative per se hearing. The DMV hearing officer acts both as the prosecutor and the judge in determining whether or not to suspend your privilege to drive. Public defenders DO NOT handle DMV hearings. During most DMV hearings, the DMV hearing officer will determine: 1) whether the officer had probable cause to detain you on suspicion of driving under the influence, 2) whether or not you were lawfully arrested, and 3) whether or not you were driving with greater than .08% blood alcohol. In some cases, an experienced lawyer may be able to obtain a hearing even when the ten (10) period has elapsed.
The court case begins with the arraignment. An arraignment is a fancy legal way of saying “the reading of the charges.” Contrary to common belief, it is the district attorney, not the police officer, who determines whether or not to bring charges based on the police officer’s report. It is essential that an attorney is brought in before the first court date, so the attorney may have an opportunity to speak to the district attorney regarding the charges. In some cases, particularly those involving a low blood alcohol level, it is possible that an attorney can persuade the district attorney not to file charges.
The complaint or charge is usually filed by a district attorney who reviews all of the complaints that will be filed for that day. Because the district attorney reviews hundreds of cases, it is possible a mistake will be made, that is, under or overcharge a case. If the district attorney has undercharged your case, your attorney may urge you to enter a plea at arraignment before another member of the district attorney’s office notices they have undercharged the case.
MOTIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
After the arraignment in misdemeanor cases, the attorney will file any pretrial motions. There are a number of different types of motions, such as: speedy trial motions, prosecutorial misconduct motions, suppression motions, Pitchess (officer misconduct/excessive force) motions, and in limine (pretrial) motions. The judge will determine whether or not to grant the motion and may even offer the attorney a better plea deal to negotiate a settlement of the case. If the defendant rejects all offers made by the judge and the district attorney, the case is set for a jury trial. Due to the seriousness of the charge, defendants in felony cases have the added step of a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is an evidentiary hearing in which the judge determines whether there is sufficient evidence for trial.
COMPLEXITY OF DUI CASES
DUI cases are much more complex than most other types of criminal cases. DUIs involve administrative, civil and criminal aspects. There are also special rules and hearings that are unique to DUI cases. Due to their complexity, it is essential that a person facing DUI charges is represented by an experienced DUI attorney.