Your Los Angeles DUI Case: The Basics

You leave Beacher's Madhouse in Santa Monica after having maybe one too many drinks. As you turn the corner onto La Brea, you drive right into a DUI checkpoint. An LAPD officer stops you and, after some discussion, smells alcohol on your breath. She asks if you've been drinking.

After a few more questions, she asks you to take a field sobriety test and blow into a handheld Preliminary Alcohol Screening (PAS) device. The device provides a rough estimate of your blood alcohol content. Based on the PAS results and the field sobriety tests, the officer believes that you are under the influence and asks you to take either a blood or Breathalyzer test. You fail. She places you under arrest and transports you to one of Los Angeles' drunk tanks.

Bail and Booking

What's next? Bail. For misdemeanor DUIs, bail is typically not required. But, for more serious offenses, such as refusal to submit to a blood-alcohol test, DUI accidents, or felony DUI charges, bail can be required. While bail determinations are usually made at one of Los Angeles' arraignment courts, in the outer parts of the county, arraignment and bail may be handled at the regular Superior Court. Once you're released from central processing, you're handed a pink piece of paper that serves as your temporary license and notice of impending license suspension. The license is valid for thirty days.

While most people are familiar with the criminal repercussions of drunk driving, there are actually two parts to a DUI case: the administrative DMV process and the criminal case. Below, you'll find a step-by-step guide to each process.

Administrative Hearing

Once you've received the notice of suspension, you'll have ten days to request a hearing via the phone number on your temporary license. If you fail to do so, you concede the issue of guilt for purposes of the DMV process. As a result, your license will automatically be suspended for six months. By requesting a hearing, you'll also gain access to the evidence against you much earlier than you would through the criminal process.

Hearings are typically conducted over the phone or at your local driver's safety office. During the hearing, either you or your attorney will present your side of the case, while the DMV hearing officer serves as both prosecutor and judge. Either side may call witnesses, testify, or present evidence. Keep in mind that many of the same defenses, such as lack of reasonable suspicion to pull you over, may apply to both your administrative hearing and criminal case.

If the hearing officer finds that, more likely than not, you were under the influence while driving, he or she will order your license be suspended. If that's the case, you may appeal the officer's decision. In addition, if you later secure a not-guilty verdict in your criminal case, your attorney may be able to have the DMV decision reversed.

Criminal Case

At the time of your release from central processing, you'll be given a notice to appear in court on a certain date. DUI cases are handled at a variety of different court locations throughout the county. Since the court typically handles many arraignments at once for a variety of alcohol, drug, and other minor offenses, you may have a long wait.

When your case is called, the judge will ask if you have an attorney. If you can't afford to hire an attorney, the court may refer you to the public defender's office, depending on the severity of the offense. If you plan on hiring a private attorney but haven't yet, the court may continue the arraignment until you have a lawyer. If your attorney is present, you'll be asked to enter a plea. Since DUI convictions can carry serious mandatory penalties, most defendants plead "not guilty."

At the end of your arraignment, the court will provide notice of your next hearing date. The date is typically set at least one month from the date of the arraignment. Before the hearing, your attorney will examine the evidence and make recommendations based on the strengths of your case. She then may attempt to reach a plea bargain with the prosecutor in order to reduce the seriousness of the offense or the severity of the punishment.

If a plea deal is reached, you'll go back to court and enter the deal on the record in front of the judge. If a deal is not reached, the case will go to trial. If you enter into a plea agreement or you're found guilty at trial, you'll then be sentenced by the judge.

Potential Sentences

Sentences can vary based on the severity of the offense. If it was your first offense and you had a low blood-alcohol level, you may be offered a plea deal for the lesser offense of reckless driving involving alcohol. While a conviction for reckless driving involving alcohol counts as a DUI for future offenses and carries many of the same penalties, it doesn't require jail time and has a lower fine than DUI offenses.

For more severe DUIs, like felony DUIs and repeat offenses, sentences typically include at least a few days of jail time. However, if someone was injured or killed as a result of your DUI offense, you could serve several years in prison. In addition, nearly all sentences, regardless of the severity, include a term of probation and a required alcohol education class.

Finally, Los Angeles County is part of the state's Ignition Interlock Device pilot program. That means that if you're convicted, you'll be required to install an interlock system in your vehicle and prohibited from driving any vehicle that's not equipped with a system for five months, or longer if you're a repeat offender. There are, however, certain exceptions for those whose employment requires them to drive company vehicles.

Now that you have an idea of what's ahead, you may want to explore FindLaw's section on DUI law or find a DUI attorney to help you with your case.

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