Anatomy of a DUI Case
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a serious crime. In Florida alone, hundreds of deaths are caused by impaired drivers every year. In 2010, 660 people were killed because of drunk driving - 69 of these deaths involved minors. For every 100,000 citizens in Florida, 3.5 people were killed by drunk driving in 2010 and 36.9% of these deaths were the result of drivers operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.15 percent or higher. In 2010, this led to 245 minors being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In total, 52,346 people were arrested for DUI.
Not everyone who is arrested for DUI is guilty and an arrest does not equate to a conviction. If you've been arrested for driving under the influence, you probably have a lot of questions about DUI charges, penalties and court proceedings - that's why you need a defense attorney. Your legal representation can make or break your case. At Thomas & Palk, P.A., we understand the stress and uncertainty of facing a criminal charge and want to help you understand your legal situation to give you the best chance of staying out of jail.
The DUI process begins when you are pulled over by a police officer because he/she suspects that you are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. When a person is taken into police custody, he/she has been officially arrested. DUI arrests may be the result of a variety of circumstances. Many DUI arrests occur when an officer pulls an individual over for some other traffic violation. For instance, an officer may witness a driver run a red light, pull them over and discover that they are impaired.
Similarly, an officer may suspect criminal activity if he/she notices something that indicates criminal activity. "Probable cause" could refer to any number of circumstances. If an officer notices a pile of empty beer bottles in the back of a suspect's car, the officer may have probable cause to suspect drunk driving and may investigate further. Some DUI arrests are the result of arrest warrant too. An arrest warrant identifies a specific crime that an individual is wanted for and gives the police officer permission to arrest the individual identified in the warrant.
DUI arrests may be challenged. In some cases, an individual's rights are violated during the DUI process. Police officers are obligated to protect citizens' rights; if they do anything that legally violates the citizen's rights, the arrest may be challenged. An arrest may be challenged at any stage of the DUI process. If your arrest was unlawful because a police officer violated your rights during any part of the DUI process, the court may decide to disregard certain pieces of evidence that would otherwise be used against you.
After you are arrested, you will be taken into custody and booked (this is also called "processing") at the police department. During a booking, police officers will usually record your personal information, take any information about your alleged crime, search your criminal record, take your fingerprints, take your photograph, search you and confiscate any personal property you happen to be carrying at the time of the arrest. "Personal property" may include your wallet, purse, cell phone or other item carried on your person. Your personal property will be returned to you when you are released.
Many times, DUI suspects are offered the opportunity to pay money in exchange for their release. This is called "bail." You may typically post bail after you have been booked by police. Many times, you are released only if you promise to appear in court for any criminal proceedings that take place after the arrest. This may include your arraignment, preliminary hearing, pre-trial motions and your trial. Even if you are not allowed to post bail immediately after your arrest, a judge may decide at a later time to allow your release. The cost of bail will be determined by your previous criminal offenses and DUI history.
"Arraignment" refers to a series of courtroom-based proceedings that take place after your arrest and booking. Typically, arraignment is the only time a DUI suspect will appear in court. Many times, this is when DUI suspects plead guilty - especially if the charges against them involve the injury of another person or an usually high BAC. During arraignment, a judge conducts court proceedings. Typically, the judge will:
- Read the charges you face
- Ask if you have an attorney / if you need a court-appointed attorney
- Ask if you plead guilty or not guilty
- Announce the date of any future court proceedings for your case
During arraignment, the defendant has a constitutional right to legal assistance. This is called the "right of counsel." If the defendant cannot afford to hire professional legal help but wants a lawyer, they may be assigned a government-appointed representative at no cost. These attorneys are labeled "public defenders" and carry the same obligation to zealously protect the rights of their clients in court.
During a preliminary hearing, the judge decides whether or not the prosecution has enough evidence to put forth a convincing case against the defendant. If not, the case will not go to trial. During the preliminary hearing, the judge will decide whether or not the government has produced enough evidence to reasonably convict the defendant of DUI. If there is not enough evidence, a jury could not make an informed decision about the case.
What can you expect during a preliminary hearing?
During a preliminary hearing, the judge will listen to arguments for and against your case. A government attorney - the prosecutor - will present a case, attempting to demonstrate your guilt. The defendant (or the defendant's attorney) will present a case in favor of your innocence and the judge will determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to an actual trial.
In short, the preliminary hearing is like trial before the actual trial. During the hearing, a prosecution may produce evidence and call witnesses to testify. Your attorney will most likely cross-examine these witnesses. Any questionable evidence will be brought to the judge's attention by the defense in hopes that the judge will dismiss the case before it is brought to trial.
During a DUI trial, the prosecution must demonstrate that "beyond a reasonable doubt," the defendant is guilty of the allegations brought against him/her. The trial is an official opportunity for the government to prove that the defendant is guilty of DUI. During trial, the defense is given a chance to demonstrate the innocence of the defendant as well. When both sides of the courtroom have presented all of their evidence, a jury will decide whether or not the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
Trials are comprised of six distinct stages:
- Jury Selection
- Opening Statements
- Witness Testimony / Cross-Examination
- Closing Arguments
- Jury Instruction
- Jury Discussion and Verdict
Generally speaking, the DUI trial is the most high-profile stage of the process. Many cases never reach trial though, because too little evidence is presented in the preliminary hearing or because the defendant pleads guilty during arraignment.
After the Trial: Appeals
If you have already been convicted of DUI, you may decide to "appeal" your case. An appeal requests that your case be taken to a higher court. If you suspect that certain aspects of your case were not conducted properly or some type of legal error was made, you may decide to appeal your case. During an appeal, the defendant is referred to as the appellant. The appellant must put forth an argument that demonstrates key legal mistakes made during the trial that affected the outcome of the case. If so, the appellant's case may be dismissed or his/her sentence may be changed. During an appeal, the appellate court examines the briefs and records filed by both sides of the appeal to determine whether or not a substantial legal error was made during the court proceedings of the appellant's trial.
Understanding DUI Sentencing
If the defendant pleads guilty of driving under the influence, their case will jump straight to the sentencing state of the DUI process; otherwise, they will be sentenced only if a jury decides that they are guilty of DUI. There are a variety of penalties that may be imposed after a DUI conviction. Short term incarceration (jail) may be the result of a first-time DUI offense; long-term incarceration (prison) may result if the motorist has a previous record involving other DUIs.
Many times, the motorist's drivers' license will be suspended or revoked. Also, his/her vehicle may be impounded. Other DUI penalties may include:
- Community Service
- Drug / Alcohol Education or Rehabilitation
- Installment of a Vehicle Ignition Interlock Device
A conviction may lead to any number of serious penalties. If you are facing allegations of driving under the influence, don't give up. Remember: an arrest doesn't mean that you are guilty. If you have been arrested for driving under the influence, we urge you to talk to an attorney from Thomas & Paulk, P.A. today.