Court Procedures in DUI/DWI Cases
Many people who are arrested for driving under the influence (“DUI”) (also called “driving while intoxicated” or DWI in many states) have no prior criminal history. A DUI arrest is typically unexpected, and the legal process is unfamiliar and may be intimidating for someone who has never been in court. Procedures vary by state and locality, but this article provides an overview of the various court hearings and common procedures a defendant might expect to encounter in a standard DUI case.
The first court appearance in a DUI case is typically the arraignment. Generally, state law specifies the timeframes within which the arraignment must take place. For instances, some states require the arraignment to be held within 36 hours of the arrest if the defendant is in jail and within 96 hours of the arrest if the defendant has been released.
Advisement of rights. At the arraignment, the judge normally reads the charges and maximum and minimum penalties to the defendant. The judge will also advise the defendant of his or her constitutional rights. In any criminal case, the defendant has the right to be represented by an attorney, and if the defendant can’t afford an attorney, the court will appoint one at no cost. If a defendant qualifies, a court-appointed attorney usually will be appointed before or shortly after the arraignment.
Bail and release conditions. The judge will also discuss bail and release conditions at arraignment. Generally, a defendant who has been arrested for DUI will obtain release before the arraignment by posting bail or being released without bail, which is commonly known as “own recognizance release” or “conditional release.” If the defendant isn’t released after being booked at the jail, the judge may reconsider release at the arraignment.
Whether a defendant posts bail or is released without posting bail, the defendant must agree to abide by certain release conditions. In a DUI case, release conditions might include the defendant agreeing to:
- appear in court for all scheduled proceedings
- not leave the state while the proceedings are pending, and
- not possess or consume alcohol or controlled substances.
When deciding whether to grant release, judges normally consider the defendant’s criminal history, the defendant’s ties to the community, and community safety.
Discovery. Generally, shortly after the arraignment, the prosecutor will provide “discovery” to the defendant’s attorney. Discovery might include police reports, blood alcohol content (“BAC”) test results, arrest videos, and any other information that the prosecutor plans to use against the defendant in court.
Entering a plea. In some jurisdictions, the defendant must enter a plea—guilty, not guilty, or no contest—at the arraignment. In other jurisdictions, the defendant enters a plea at a plea hearing (see below).
In some jurisdictions, the defendant is entitled to a preliminary hearing following arraignment. (Other jurisdictions have preliminary hearings only in felony cases, and DUIs are usually misdemeanors.) At the preliminary hearing, the judge decides whether the state has enough evidence to establish a strong suspicion (called “probable cause”) that the defendant committed the DUI crime. Rather than deciding whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, the judge is assessing whether there’s sufficient evidence against the defendant to proceed to a trial. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to dismiss cases where the evidence of guilt is so weak that no reasonable jury would find the defendant guilty.
Although many DUI cases are resolved through plea bargaining, DUI defendants generally have a constitutional right to a jury trial. Trial procedures vary by jurisdiction, but a DUI trial typically begins with selecting anywhere from six to 12 jurors from a pool of potential jurors to hear the case. Then, the prosecutor and defense give opening statements. After opening statements, each side presents its evidence, which might include the testimony of witnesses, BAC test results, photographs, and videos. After the evidence is presented, the parties give closing arguments and the case goes to the jury for deliberations as to guilt. The jury privately deliberates until a verdict is reached. (Read more on DUI trials.)
If the jury finds the defendant guilty or the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, the judge will set a sentencing hearing. The sentencing hearing may or may not occur the same day as the guilty finding or defendant’s plea. Depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances of the case, a DUI sentence might include:
- jail time
- driver’s license suspension
- installation of an ignition interlock device (IID)
- attendance at a victim impact panel
- community service
- substance abuse treatment, and
Generally, the severity of DUI penalties depend on the number of prior DUI convictions the defendant has and whether the current offense involved any aggravating factors such as a particularly high BAC or an accident.