Unlike a DMV license suspension hearing, a criminal court case is not optional. It is up to the prosecutor whether to charge the defendant and on what counts. Once the defendant has been charged, he/she and/or his or her attorney must attend all proceedings.
In California, if you are charged with a misdemeanor, your private DUI lawyer may appear at the arraignment on your behalf. In most courts, it's possible to never have to appear in court. This will save you from taking time off from work and the possible public embarrassment of being in court. If a plea deal is worked out, you may still not need to appear in court. If you do not have an attorney, you will need to appear in court and will be formally charged with the DUI.
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In California, almost all DUIs are misdemeanor offenses, and they follow the same court process as any other misdemeanor charge. The information below will apply to any California DUI unless it is a felony charge. The three main stages of a misdemeanor DUI case are: the arraignment, the pretrial conference, and the trial.
Most DUI cases do not go to trial. It is possible to win your case with a dismissal before or during the trial. It is also possible to receive a plea deal for a lesser charge. The arraignment is a short hearing with the judge where your attorney will enter your plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest).
Unless you are representing yourself (not recommended), you should already have a DUI lawyer representing you before you come to the arraignment. In addition to giving you proper counsel, having a lawyer means you do not have to appear in person at the arraignment. They can appear for you. The court will also read the full charges against you, but if you have a lawyer your lawyer will typically ask to waive this in order to save time. You will also be read your rights, including the right to a lawyer and the right not to incriminate yourself.
In some cases, the arraignment will also determine bail. Bail is money you leave with the court as proof that you will show up for your trial. It’s only required if you would otherwise be held in custody until the trial date. This is uncommon in DUI cases, so bail is not usually an issue at the arraignment. But, if this is your 3rd (or more) DUI charge, or there were firearms or illegal/prescription drugs involved in your DUI, you may need to post bail. A retained DUI attorney or public defender will negotiate this on your behalf.
At the arraignment, your attorney will enter a plea for you of "not guilty" and receive the "complaint." This is the "charging document" that the prosecutor files with the court. The prosecutor will give your attorney the police reports and the results from the chemical test. This is called the "discovery". The court will then set the case for a pre-trial hearing and may, at the same time, set the case for trial.
The pretrial hearing will usually be set about one month after the arraignment. The time between the two is when your lawyer is most likely to file motions—requests to the court—that may help your case. Examples of the most common pretrial motions include: motion to dismiss the case, usually for lack of evidence; motion to suppress evidence that has been contaminated or obtained illegally; discovery motion to get evidence the prosecution won’t turn over; motion to split a blood or urine sample to perform an independent test; or a Pitchess motion to reveal misconduct by an officer.
Going to trial is uncommon in DUI cases and it’s not always advisable. Downsides of trial include: it is stressful, it can be time-consuming, and it’s impossible to predict the outcome. Plus, juries are known to be unfriendly to DUI suspects, unless the evidence is overwhelmingly in the defendants favor.
However, there are circumstances where it truly is the best choice. Going to trial can be a smart call if your lawyer believes you have an advantage—perhaps because key evidence has been suppressed—or if the prosecution simply won’t offer a satisfactory plea bargain.
If you're considering representing yourself in a DUI case, do yourself a favor and perform all the due diligence you can. That includes at least speaking with a lawyer about your case. Call the Johnson Criminal Law Group for a free consultation and evaluation of your DUI arrest.