Your Tacoma DUI Case: The Basics

Polishing off a Dead Elvis Burger at Dirty Oscar's Annex is not for the light hearted, so naturally you swigged a little more moonshine than you should have. You feel pretty stable cruising down 6th Ave., but your heart jumps at the unmistakable siren of a Tacoma police cruiser. Next thing you know, you are being transported to the local police station. Getting a DUI is a humiliating and expensive experience, and it doesn't help that the procedure around it is so confusing.

To prepare you for the DUI process, FindLaw has created this guide to your Tacoma DUI case.

License and Registration, Please

Your DUI case begins with the investigation during the initial traffic stop. The officer will likely ask you to step out of your vehicle and perform a Field Sobriety Test. If the officer suspects that you are intoxicated, you will likely be asked to blow into a breathalyzer. If the device registers a 0.08% breath alcohol content, or BAC, the officer can arrest you on the spot and have your car towed.

It may be critical to your case not to volunteer information to the officer, as it can be used against you in court. Specifically, it's probably a good idea to avoid admitting drinking any alcohol or visiting a bar earlier that day. Sometimes even innocent statements can be used by prosecutors to attack your credibility at trial. In short, take care with what you tell police officers.

The Law

For most individuals, the legal BAC limit is 0.08%. However, individuals under 21 can be arrested for a BAC of just 0.02%, and commercial drivers for 0.04%. What most people don't know is that you can be convicted of a DUI with no BAC evidence whatsoever, if you are "found to be driving a vehicle under the influence or affected by alcohol, any drug, or a combination of alcohol and drugs, regardless of the concentration of alcohol in [your] breath or blood."

Moreover, you can get in trouble for refusing to submit to a chemical test. Under Washington's implied consent law, if you have a driver's license you have already "consented" to submit a chemical test whenever a police officer asks. You can refuse the test, but your license will automatically be suspended for one year. Furthermore, refusal does not prevent a DUI conviction, which will just tack on more time to your license suspension. In fact, a prosecutor could argue that refusing the test is evidence that you knew you'd fail.

Search and Seizure

You have been "seized" by the government whenever a police officer detains you, even temporarily. Once detained, you are entitled to the broad protections offered by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment provides that all searches and seizures must be accompanied by a certain level of suspicion, depending on the intrusiveness of the detention. To temporarily detain an individual for investigation, the police officer must have reasonable suspicion that you were committing a criminal act, such as a traffic violation. To arrest someone, the police must have probable cause that the individual committed the crime in question.

These Constitutional requirements become extremely important in DUI cases because of something called the exclusionary rule. This long-standing American tradition holds that, with some exceptions, evidence gathered in violation of your Constitutional Rights cannot be admitted in court. This means that if the judge finds that the initial traffic stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion, 100% of the evidence against you which was gathered after the stop may be excluded and your case could be thrown out of court.

You can challenge the constitutionality of the stop with a motion to suppress evidence, which places the burden on the prosecutor to bring witnesses to demonstrate the reasonableness of the detention. This motion is common in DUI cases because it provides a defense lawyer a chance to question the police officer to probe the case for weaknesses.

Finding a Lawyer

DUI law is more complicated than you'd think, and an old lawyer mantra holds, "he who represents himself has a fool for a client." That might be an overstatement, but nevertheless, it certainly helps to have someone with a solid knowledge of the ins and outs of DUI proceedings help navigate a case. Defense attorneys in DUI cases typically bill clients on a flat fee basis, which means they won't rack up "billable hours" working your case and you know exactly what services you're getting for a price.

Penalties

Washington has one of the harshest DUI penalty schedules in the nation. A first time offender faces a mandatory minimum of one day in jail, up to a $5,000 fine and a 90-day license suspension. If your BAC measured above 0.15% or there were passengers in your vehicle, you will likely face an aggravated DUI charge with a higher sentence, fine, and a one year license suspension. Fortunately, the judge may opt to order electronic home monitoring instead of jail time, albeit at a steep cost and only a rate of fifteen days at home for every one "real" day of jail time. Furthermore, the judge must order the installation of an ignition interlock& device for at least one year after your license is reinstated, even for a first time DUI offense.

Washington has a seven-year "lookback" period for determining the number of prior DUIs you've suffered. If you suffer additional DUI convictions within seven years, you will face stiffer penalties -- 30 days minimum in jail for a second, and 90 days minimum for a third. A fourth DUI results in a felony, and you could be shipped off to prison.

On the Road Again

During your license suspension period you can still apply for a temporary restricted license, which will allow you to work and go to school, healthcare appointments, court appearances, substance abuse treatments, or any court-ordered community service.

After your suspension period is over, you can get information about how to reinstate your license in person at a Driver Services Office, by phone at (360) 902-3900, or by e-mail at drivers@dol.wa.gov. From here, feel free to read more about your constitutional protections, or learn more generally about DUI law.

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