Your San Francisco DUI Case: The Basics

The company lunch at The Slanted Door had been a smashing success. The spring rolls and spareribs just kept coming, as did the Singapore Slings. You were stuffed, a little tipsy, and delighted to have the rest of the afternoon off. You thought you might do some shopping, but maybe you would head home first to change. You got into your car and started heading down the Embarcadero. While you were fiddling with the radio, you swerved a little and the next thing you knew there was a patrol car behind you, signaling you to pull over. Now you are being charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI). What do you do? What happens now? Here is some basic information to help you navigate your DUI in The City.

The Legal Limits

California law provides that it is unlawful to drive a vehicle when you are under the influence of any alcoholic beverage, drug, or both or when you have a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or more. Violation of this law can lead to both administrative penalties with the Department of Motor Vehicles and criminal penalties with the courts.

Key Players

The first folks you will probably encounter in your DUI case are officers from the San Francisco Police Department or the California Highway Patrol. Your case will likely be prosecuted by the District Attorney's Office at the Hall of Justice and you may spend some time at the County Jail facilities. If you cannot afford an attorney, you may be seeking representation from the Public Defender's Office. Finally, as noted above, the administrative aspects will be dealt with at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Traffic Stop and Arrest

If the officer has “reasonable suspicion” that you are impaired (e.g. erratic driving, lane drifting, etc.), he will likely pull you over for further investigation. Then, he will typically ask you to participate in Field Sobriety Testing which usually includes walking a straight line, standing on one leg and following an object with your eyes. The officer will be observing your performance on these tests to gather additional evidence of your impairment. Remember that these tests are optional and you are not required to take them. The officer may also ask you to submit to a roadside preliminary alcohol test (PAS). Again, this is a voluntary test and you may politely decline.

Regardless of whether you take these tests or not, however, the officer may still arrest you if he has probable cause to do so. At that point you will typically be asked to take a chemical test of your blood, breath or urine. By driving in California, you have already given your implied consent to submit to such testing. You do not have a right to have an attorney present during the testing. You may refuse this test, but your refusal can be used against you in court and will result in an immediate license suspension.

Booking and Bail

After arrest and chemical testing, the next step is usually booking and bail. Booking is the process by which you and the charges against you are officially entered into the system and bail is the promise you make (either by signature or money) that you will return to court.

In San Francisco, the Intake and Release Center at 425 7th Street is where all individuals are booked into and released from the San Francisco County Jail. At the Intake and Release Center booking includes searches, fingerprints, photographs, medical triage, criminal history reviews and more. If you are charged with a felony, a DNA sample may be collected, as well.

Your bail will generally be set either by a judge or according to this schedule. If you need to bail someone else out of jail, you may call 415-551-0651 (M-F 8am to 4pm) or 415-553-1430 (M-Sun non-business hours) for more information.

Driver's License

In most situations, if you fail (register 0.08% or higher) or refuse the chemical test, the officer will confiscate your driver's license and give you an order of suspension/revocation and a temporary driving permit good for 30 days.

You then have 10 days to request a hearing from the DMV to "show that the suspension/revocation is not justified." Your need for a driver's license is not an issue that will be addressed at the hearing. Instead, the hearing will focus solely on whether the officer had reasonable cause to believe you were driving under the influence, whether you were lawfully arrested, and whether you were in fact driving under the influence (0.08% or higher). If you refused the chemical test, one of the issues will be whether the officer advised you that your license would be revoked if you failed to submit to testing.

If it is determined at the hearing that the suspension/revocation was justified, you can lose your license for up to 3 years, depending on the circumstances.

Under certain circumstances you can apply for a restricted license that will allow you to drive to and from work or a DUI treatment program. Note that to be issued such a license, a number of criteria must be met, including enrollment in a DUI treatment program, filing of proof of financial responsibility with the DMV and more.

For additional information, you may call the DMV's Driver Safety Office at 415-557-1170 and their website has more information.

The Criminal Case

The criminal aspect of your DUI case will proceed separately from the administrative process at the DMV. Generally, your first appearance will be the arraignment where the charges against you are read, you are asked how you plead, and you are advised of subsequent hearing dates.

If you plead guilty at this stage, you will proceed to sentencing (legal punishment). If you plead not guilty you may proceed toward trial. There is also the possibility that the case could be dismissed or you could resolve by way of plea bargain.

Getting An Attorney

DUI cases can be technical and complicated, and the consequences of a DUI conviction can be long lasting. It is strongly recommended that you retain an attorney to help defend your case. For more information on how a legal professional can help you, check out this FindLaw section on Using a DUI Lawyer.

Next Steps: Search for a Local Attorney

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