Frequently-asked questions about drunk driving

What are the possible penalties for a DUI in California?

For a first offense, they are:

  • 4 days to 6 months in jail, with at least 48 hours of continuous jail time.
  • Fines and assessments which vary per county but generally total $1,300-$2,200.
  • Car may be impounded for up to 6 months if owned by defendant.
  • Ignition interlock for up to 3 years.
  • 3 months of attendance at a state-sponsored DUI school.
  • 6-month suspension of driving privileges.

Having a child under 14 in the car, speeding 20 mph on surface streets or 30 mph on highways, refusing to take a chemical test, or having one or more prior convictions within the previous 10 years will increase the penalties.

However, if your blood-alcohol level is below .15 and there are none of the enhancements listed immediately above, then you stand a good chance of avoiding jail time.

Each county in California has different sentencing policies and plea dispositions for DUI offenses. For example, one county may impose no jail or trash pickup time for a first-offense DUI, but never offer a reckless driving disposition. Another county may demand two days of jail time, but routinely wipe it out with two days credit for time served.

Within each county, plea and sentencing practices can vary from courtroom to courtroom, depending on the judge or the deputy district attorney assigned to the case.

The reality of sentencing statutes, and the judicial imposition of them, is that they are forever becoming more and more punitive. Some of the enhancements make sense, while others (e.g., 48-hour vehicle impound) offer little in the way of deterrence but instead are appeasement to victims’ rights groups.

Understand that the future potential consequences are severe if you are arrested and charged again with driving under the influence. That look-back period is forever increasing (legislation in 2005 increased the 7-year look-back time period to 10 years).

If you have been arrested two or more times for DUI, the court will look more favorably on you if you take immediate steps to address your drinking problem (e.g., daily attendance at AA meetings, outpatient or residential treatment with proof of it for the court).

What should I do after I am released from jail?

  1. Immediately write down the events preceding, during, and following your arrest. Note what you ate and when, whether you took any medication, and as exactly as possible, how much you had to drink and when as exactly as possible. Who were you with and where did you go?
    Next, write down everything that police officers said to you and any reply you made. Replay the conversations and document the exact words. Note whether anyone else was present during these conversations. Record their names and contact information, and ask them to write down everything they remember.
  2. Retrieve your car and if it contains anything noteworthy like alcoholic containers, have a friend or relative photograph those items and note whether any liquids remain in them. If your license has been suspended, have someone else drive the car home for you.
  3. Contact the DMV within 10 days of your arrest or you will lose the right to appeal the suspension of your driving privileges. If you hire an attorney within 10 days, he or she will contact the DMV for a hearing.
  4. Stay out of trouble while your case is pending. New infractions will make matters worse.
  5. Hire an experienced and qualified DUI attorney to represent you. The next answer offers some suggestions for this task.

How do I find a good lawyer?

The internet is the easiest and surest way to quickly compare the experience and focus of several local drunk-driving attorneys. Go to the About Me page and look for answers to these questions:

  1. How many years has the attorney been doing criminal defense work?
  2. How many years has the attorney been handling drunk-driving cases?
  3. Does the lawyer concentrate on drunk-driving cases?
  4. Are there any indications of this criminal defense and drunk driving concentration (association membership, writing, speaking, attendance at specialized courses, board certification, etc.)?

You can also obtain referrals from courthouse personnel, other attorneys, and people who have retained a drunk-driving attorney.

To avoid financial misunderstandings, when you meet with the attorney be sure to ask:

  • What will the legal fee be?
  • What does the fee include?
  • Does the fee include any drivers license hearings?
  • Will any trial, appeal, or post-conviction relief cost extra?
  • If the case is dismissed and charges are refilled, will there be additional fees?
  • Are there any additional out-of-pocket expenses? What are they?

At your first meeting you should also discuss any relevant items on this handy Checklist of Important Facts and Legal Issues.

Can I represent myself?

Yes, but no one familiar with the drunk-driving legal process would advise it. A few of dozens of reasons are: (1) the prosecutor will have no incentive to offer you a reasonable deal, (2) you will be unable to competently represent yourself in court, (3) your lack of experience is likely to make a bad situation worse, and (4) you will be unable to recognize when you have a valid defense.

What are the most common defenses to drunk driving?

  • Was the vehicle stop valid?
  • Can the field sobriety tests be suppressed?
  • Can any statements you made be suppressed?
  • Was the arrest valid?
  • Were you read your Miranda rights?
  • Were you read the implied consent warnings?
  • Were you properly observed in the 15 minutes before your breath test?
  • Was the officer trained to perform the breath test?
  • Is the breath test inaccurate?
  • Did someone actually see you drive?

If the officer failed to read my Miranda rights, will my case be dismissed?

No. However, if the officer failed to give Miranda warnings or provided them at the wrong time, some or all of your more damaging statements may be suppressed. The prosecutor will argue that the questioning was part of a preliminary investigation, conducted before you had been placed in custody, and thus Miranda warnings were not yet needed.

What can I do to help prepare my legal defense?

1. Getting a head start on community service work and enrolling in a drunk-driving school per your attorney’s instructions can demonstrate to the judge that you serious about straightening out your life. You might also end up with more pleasant community service duty than if the judge makes the assignment.

2. Keep a copy of all the papers related to your case in one place.

3. Obtain and give to your attorney full contact information for all fact witnesses. This includes full name, cell phone number, e-mail address, and name and contact information for a close friend or relative of the fact witness. Typical fact witnesses include: people you were with before being stopped, passengers in your car, and people you may have called from your car after the stop or from the police station


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