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The California DUI Court Process

People are often left with the question “What now?” or “What do I do next?” at the onset of the DUI court process. To begin with, here are a few steps that you can take if you have been arrested for a DUI:

  • Hire an experienced DUI defense attorney
  • Request for a DMV hearing within 10 days from the date of the DUI arrest to prevent the automatic suspension of your license
  • Discuss the details of your case with your attorney to explore potential defense strategies that may be applicable in your case
  • Discuss with your attorney and consider the possibility of plea-bargaining agreements

DUI cases can get technical and complex and can be difficult to understand and follow at times. To avoid getting lost while navigating the DUI court process, there are a few important aspects that one must understand about DUIs.

To help give you a better understanding of the California DUI court process, our West Covina DUI defense attorneys discuss some important matters that you should know in the following article.

1. California DUI Investigations

An investigation is the starting point of the whole DUI case process. Typically, a DUI investigation is initiated when a driver is stopped or asked to pull over because the police have reasonable suspicion the driver committed a crime or a traffic violation. These can include incidents such as a driver being involved in a vehicular accident, going over the speed limit, running a red light, going against the flow of traffic, having a broken tail light, and other similar incidents.

The officers usually write up their report the same way. Regardless of how the investigation began, the officer’s report will usually indicate: 1) the officer made contact and spoke to the driver; and 2) while speaking with the officer, the driver exhibited “objective signs of intoxication.” (For example: smelling the odor of alcohol from the breath or person of the driver, watery and bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, etc.)

The officer will then ask you to perform Field Sobriety Tests (also known as FST) and sometimes even ask you to perform a breath test called “Preliminary Alcohol Screening Test” (also known as PAS Test).

Based on the officer’s observations and how you performed in the FST and PAS Test, the officer will then make an arrest for a DUI violation.

2. California DUI Arrests

After you have been arrested following a DUI investigation, the arresting officer will then take you to a hospital, police station, or jail to measure the BAC through chemical testing. In California, the chemical test is usually by breath test or blood test. The driver will then be given an option to choose between breath testing or blood testing.

A breath test will reveal the BAC results immediately while a blood test will require the blood sample to be sent first to a laboratory for analysis.

If a driver takes a breath test and the BAC is 0.08% or above, the driver will be charged under California Vehicle Code §23152 (b), driving with a BAC of 0.08% or higher. If the breath test reveals a BAC lower than 0.08% but the officer suspects that the driver was driving under the influence of drugs, the driver may also be required to take a blood test.[1]

If the driver refuses to take the chemical test, the driver will still be charged for drunk driving but aside from the DUI charge, the “refusal” will be added as an allegation to the charge. Refusing to take the chemical test carries with it additional penalties which include a one-year suspension of license and mandatory two days in jail.[2]

After the chemical test has been completed, the driver will then be booked and released. You may get released by posting bail or on a written promise to appear in court on the assigned court date, depending on the circumstances of the case and your criminal history. Usually, the police will hold you in jail for several hours before releasing you.

The arresting officer will then complete their report of the arrest and submit it to the local prosecutor for review. The prosecutor will then review the report and will decide to either

  • Decline to file charges, OR
  • Formally charge you with a DUI

3. Getting Competent Representation Court

When faced with a DUI charge, you have three possible options for representation:

  • Represent yourself,
  • Hire a private DUI defense attorney, OR
  • Getting a public defender (depending on your financial status)

Representing Yourself in Court

Although this is something that you can do, it is not advisable unless you are an attorney who specializes in California DUI. DUI cases can be complicated, and judges and prosecutors can be tough on offenders. If you intend to represent yourself, you will need experience and technical knowledge of the law and the court process. You need someone who understands the intricacies of a DUI case and who can resolve your case favorably.

Public Defender

Public defenders are available for defendants who cannot afford to hire private defense attorneys. Public defenders have extensive experience in criminal defense which includes DUIs. They usually also have standing relationships with prosecutors and judges. However, public defenders usually:

  • only available for indigent defendants
  • have heavy caseloads so they do not have a lot of time to devote to every single case assigned to them
  • are assigned randomly so defendants cannot choose which public defender will represent them
  • have limited resources

Private Defense Attorneys

There are a lot of private defense attorneys that you can hire to defend you in your DUI case. When choosing a DUI defense attorney, you will want to hire someone that not only has the appropriate specialty and experience with DUI cases but also someone that will take the time and use the necessary resources to create a thorough defense strategy for your case. Defending DUI cases requires particular skills. You will want to hire an attorney that has superb negotiation skills, always updated with the developments in California DUI laws, keeps up with the developments in science and research to come up with skillful defense strategies, among others.

DUI cases can be complex and technical. It would be in your best interest to hire an attorney who has extensive experience and specializes in DUI defense.

4. DMV Hearings

DMV hearings are extremely important in DUI cases. You will need to take DMV hearings seriously because if you do not, you will risk having your license suspended. Once your license has been suspended, it is difficult to have the suspension reversed.

After you have been arrested for a DUI, the officer will notify you that your driver’s license will be suspended after 30 days. Your license will be confiscated, and the officer will issue a temporary license (a pink form) that is only valid until the suspension takes effect. They will provide a “Notice of Suspension” that provides a number to call where you can request a hearing with the DMV.

You must request a hearing with the DMV within 10 days after the arrest. [3] If you do not make a request within those 10 days after the arrest, the license suspension immediately takes effect after that period. If you have hired an attorney, the attorney can contact the DMV to make the hearing request.

A DMV hearing is an independent procedure from the DUI court case. You can have an attorney represent you during the DMV hearing. Take note that a private attorney can represent you in the DMV hearing but a public defender will not because public defenders are specifically only for the court case. This means that you will have to represent yourself in the DMV hearing if you do not have a private attorney.

The DMV hearing will only specifically cover your driving privileges i.e. whether or not to suspend your driver’s license. However, this also provides a venue for you to prepare for your DUI court case because your attorney can subpoena and cross-examine the arresting officer. This can expose any police blunders and possible weaknesses in the prosecution’s case against you.

If you win in the DMV hearing, your license will not be suspended. However, take note that if you lose the court case, your license can still be suspended. If you lose the DMV hearing, the suspension will take effect and it can last anywhere between four months to three years depending on how many DUI priors you have and if you refused to take the chemical test.

Ignition Interlock Device (IID)

Since 2019, persons that have been arrested for DUIs can immediately apply for an IID restricted license.[4] An IID is a breathalyzer installed in your vehicle that will check your breath for BAC. If you provide a clean breath sample, you will be able to start your vehicle. If not, the IID will prevent your vehicle from starting. With an IID installed, you can continue driving without restriction.

5. Court Process

As mentioned previously, the DMV hearing is an independent procedure from the DUI court case. The procedure starts with the arraignment and ends when you are either acquitted or sentenced for the crime you are charged with. Take note that if you are sentenced to probation, the DUI case remains open until you have fulfilled all your court obligations.

6. DUI Arraignment

The arraignment is not only the start of the court proceedings, but this is also when you enter your plea i.e. not guilty, guilty, no contest.

Entering a plea of "guilty" is straight forward. You will be sentenced for the charges against you, and the case will be closed upon the fulfillment of your court-mandated obligations such as completion of probation, serving jail time, payment of fines, etc.

If you plead not guilty, your attorney will have the opportunity to refute the prosecution’s evidence against you such as the police report, results of the chemical test, records of the chemical testing procedure that you participated in, etc.

Plea negotiations can sometimes take place during the arraignment but they usually occur before the arraignment or what is called the "pre-trial" phase.

7. DUI Negotiation

DUI negotiation is not technically part of the DUI court process. However, it requires special mention considering that it is a crucial part of your case as a defendant. During the pre-trial phase, once your attorney obtains a copy of the prosecution's evidence against you, your lawyer may now come up with a comprehensive defense strategy in your case.

Because most negotiations take place during the pre-trial phase of the case, coming up with a defense strategy is crucial at this point. Your attorney will negotiate with the prosecution at this stage and it can determine whether the prosecution will proceed with the original charges against you, or lower the charge against you, or even drop the charges altogether. Your lawyer may point out to the prosecution certain defenses available to you such as:

  • blunders in the police investigation or arrest
  • failure to follow strict procedure when conducting the chemical test
  • inaccurate test results

These are some possible defenses in DUI case. However, the defenses are not limited to these examples and will depend on the circumstances of each case.

8. Pre-Trial Motions

The pre-trial phase of the case can last from weeks to months. During this time, your defense attorney will take the necessary measures to review and investigate all the details in your case. At this point, your attorney can file several motions in court with the end sight of having the charges reduced or dropped.

Here are some examples of pre-trial motions that your attorney can file:

  • Probable Cause Hearing (this is to challenge the officer’s basis for the traffic stop that lead to you arrest)
  • Motion to Suppress Evidence (this is to ask the court to exclude particular evidence that may be used during trial, either due to it being obtained illegally or might cause undue prejudice against you)
  • Pitchless Hearing (this is to learn more about the arresting officer’s complaint history to possibly discredit their report or testimony)
  • Blood Split Motion (if you took a blood test, your attorney can request the remaining blood sample taken from you for independent testing)

9. DUI Jury Trial

Most DUI cases are settled before the trial even begins. However, if the case proceeds to trial, a jury trial is possible should you choose it.

A jury trial has several phases, namely:

  • jury selection
  • opening statements
  • presentation of the prosecution’s case
  • presentation of the defense’s case
  • closing statements
  • verdict
  • sentence

To be convicted by a jury, the prosecution must convince all twelve jurors that you are guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

There is no hard and fast rule on whether you should elect for trial by jury or judge. This will all depend on the circumstances of your case. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The best way to know is to consult with your attorney on what strategy to take keeping in mind the specific circumstances in your case.

10. Penalties

If you are found guilty, you will be convicted and sentenced when the trial ends. This also marks the end of the DUI court process.

The penalties can vary depending on the circumstances of your case and whether you have any prior DUI convictions.

Normally, a DUI is charged as a misdemeanor. The penalties for a DUI become worse if someone else was injured as a result of the DUI or if you have prior DUI convictions on your record. Also, the more severe the penalty gets, the longer the driver cannot drive because their license gets suspended for a certain period.

Here are the specific penalties for California DUIs:

  • 1st time DUI (misdemeanor) - Up to 6 months in county jail, $390-$1000 in fines, driver’s license suspension for 6 to 10 months, 3 or 9 months of DUI school, victim impact panel (offender is ordered to listen to DUI victims speak about how a DUI incident has affected their lives in hopes of educating and deterring future DUIs)
  • 2nd time DUI (misdemeanor) - 96 hours to 1 year in county jail, $390-$1000 in fines, driver’s license suspension for 2 years, 18 or 30 months of DUI school
  • 3rd time DUI (misdemeanor) - 120 days to 1 year in county jail, $390-1000 in fines, driver’s license suspension for 3 years, 30 months of DUI school
  • DUI with injury (misdemeanor) - 5 days to 1 year in county jail, $390-$5000 in fines plus restitution to injured parties, driver’s license suspension for 1 to 3 years, 3, 18 or 30 months of DUI school
  • DUI with injury (felony) - 16 months to 16 years in state prison, $1015-$5000 in fines plus restitution to injured parties, driver’s license suspension for 5 years, 18 or 30 months of DUI school
  • Felony DUI (3 or more prior DUIs within the last 10 years) - 16 months, 2 years or 3 years in state prison, $390-$1000 in fines, driver’s license suspension for 4 years, 18 or 30 months of DUI school

DUI happens. Losing your license and going to jail don’t have to.

A DUI charge is a difficult thing to manage and navigate on your own. Due to the intricacies of the DUI court process, you will need someone on your side that specializes and is experienced in handling DUI defense cases. You will want to avoid a conviction at all costs because it can have severe effects on your life. Although we are fielding inquiries from a lot of people in similar situations, we will do our best to put you in contact with an experienced DUI lawyer from our firm.

If you need assistance with a DUI charge, do not hesitate to contact us at (626) 827-7222 to schedule your consultation with one of our experienced DUI attorneys at no cost.


[1] California Vehicle Code §23152 (e)

[2] California Vehicle Code §23612 (a) (1)

[3] Please see the California DMV website at https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/driver-education-and-safety/dmv-safety-guidelines-actions/administrative-hearings/

[4] California Senate Bill 1046

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