What your DUI Lawyer Really Does
05/ 06 / 16 Filed in: DUI | Lawyers | Legal
As soon as your charge is booked your mailbox is going to explode - flyers, brochures, letters, all from DUI lawyers offering their services. Some of the shadier ones will attempt to make their letters look like official documents from the DMV or police. Don’t fall for it.
All these lawyers come in with a few promises - that they’re on your side, they can guide you through the process, that they’re the best, and most importantly - they can get you off or reduce the charges against you.
When you’re feeling the world is going to collapse around you, you get super excited about the thought that you can pay somebody to get out of this. Most likely this will not happen. Hate to be harsh and dash your pie-in-the-sky dreams, but, sadly, it’s just how it goes. Most likely you won’t be getting out free and easy just because you decided to hire a lawyer.
All the ads and flyers will tell you that this lawyer wins 95% of their cases, and they’ve defended a man who was arrested with a .32 or was on cocaine and had residue all over his face, or a number of other zany stories. These are half-truths at best. When they win 95% of their cases, they mean 95% of the ones that go to trial. The vast majority of DUI cases do not go to trial, and it’s probable that yours won’t. This number is meaningless to you. The guy with coke on his face… I’m sure the lawyer did win this case, but this is one out of thousands and thousands of DUI cases the lawyer has. Most aren’t going to “plead out to the usual sentencing” on their flyer.
When you decide on which lawyer you want, you pay them a retainer - this basically works as an all-inclusive price. It theoretically gets you unlimited talks, visits, explanations with your lawyer, and it’s nice because you’re not estimating how much you’re paying each time you delay your court day for some reason. However what they don’t point out is that taking your case to court, where it would actually be decided, costs extra. 95% of DUI cases don’t go to trial, this is one of the reasons why. Usually by the point any potential trial will come out, you’ve already paid for the lawyer, researched the classes, researched the interlock, researched the insurance, and been told that you have little-to-no chance anyhow. At that point spending money is the last thing you’re going to want to do.
That’s not to say that a lawyer is useless, I’m glad that I got one, but if you’re expecting to get out of jail free, temper your expectations.
Your lawyer is going to handle the messy stuff - the filing of paperwork, negotiating with the prosecutor, save you trips to court for your hearings, deal with the DMV, etc. It’s a handy thing to have because there’s a large amount of things that you have to do. It’s a hassle. A lawyer takes some of the weight off.
Once your retainer is paid, your lawyer will usually say something like “Don’t worry if you don’t hear from us for a while.” and you won’t hear from them for a while. It’s kind of an odd feeling to give somebody a large amount of money just to be told “see ya!” but in the beginning, there’s not a lot to do.
However, there’s another surprise around the corner - most likely the person you met with, the face on the business card, the person with their name on the door will not be your actual lawyer. When you hire a lawyer you hire them and their team. So you may find confidence with this person, and then be handed off to a person lower down the pecking order. Be sure to read your retainer agreement in full before signing as this is most likely in there. If this happens to you, be sure to look up this new person. I got handed off and was shocked at first. I looked the new lawyer up and found that they were fairly comparable. I had mixed feelings about this and met with the new lawyer as my first plea offer had been given and found them knowledgable, and very similar to the head lawyer, so I came down as being ok with it. If you do not like your new lawyer or trust them - raise all hell to the firm. Additionally, ask about this when consulting with lawyers the first time, had I known this would happen I certainly would have.
First thing your lawyer should do is to schedule your hearing with the DMV. In CA you have 10 days to schedule a hearing with the DMV, otherwise your license gets an automatic suspension for 5 months. If you schedule a hearing, you retain your driving privileges until your hearing, which is incredibly handy. Your lawyer should also be able to file for your suspension to be split into two sections - hard and soft. I’ll explain more on these later, but it’s a preferable scenario.
Supposedly you can do this yourself. There’s a number on your DUI ticket that you can call to arrange this hearing. I’ve been told that it’s a high-volume phone number and that reaching a person on the other end can be difficult. I’ve not tried it myself, but given the DMV is involved, I wouldn’t be surprised. Fortunately, your lawyer has connections and people working for him, so it gets taken care of.
Your lawyer will represent you when the DMV hearing comes. Don’t expect too much, the DMV hearing is as cut-and-dry as any other DMV procedure. There’s no real arguments to the proceeding, no passionate heart-felt speech by your lawyer is going to tug on any heart strings. They basically ask if it was a legal stop, and if you were over the limit. It’s hard for even your lawyer to argue these points. They don’t take special circumstances into consideration, or anything like that. This hearing is done over the phone, so it’s especially hard to defend - they can see the video evidence, you or your attorney can’t. But, if you get a lawyer, they deal with it, they make time in their schedule to take the call, you just hear back later.
Your lawyer can also delay this hearing if you need to put off the suspension. This can work as a double edged sword, though, so be cautious.
Your lawyer will then be pretty quiet until your first hearing date. This can be a frustrating time because you may have a lot of questions about what’s going on, about details, about things far down the road, and you may contact them many times, and your calls and emails will go unanswered. This is, sadly, par for the course. Many other DUI offenders I’ve spoken to who have gotten lawyers shared this frustration. While the lawyer does guide you along the path, they’re not right by your side. They’ve got other clients, sure, but it can be frustrating to just not hear back. Sadly, it’s just the case.
Upon the first hearing date your lawyer will pick up the charging documents in your case, and more often than not, receive your first plea offer. This will be the first time that you see what the arresting officer wrote about your arrest. Do not be surprised if what is written is not what happened. The courts go based off of cops testimony, and it’s not unusual for them to embellish what happened. It’s wrong, it’s sickening, it’s just how it goes, and there’s nothing you can do.
From here, you have a choice - you can take the plea deal, or go to discovery. Going to discovery means that you will actually have the evidence against you. Yes, they do ask you to plead out before you can see what evidence there is. It’s supposed to save time, but it’s kind of a reprehensible practice if you think about it. Going to discovery also carries the threat that the plea deal could be rescinded. This, too, is to discourage any sort of fighting it. If you haven’t felt like you’re being ground up by the gears of big machine before this, you’re certainly feeling it now.
I was a little hesitant to go to discovery, but, in the spirit of wanting to fight, my belief that I was wrongfully pulled over (so naive!) I went for it. Fortunately, my plea didn’t change. I’m told that when they do, it’s either because there was some huge other factor that makes the crime even worse (I have no idea what this could be) or that it’s only slightly modified (think a day or two of community service).
If you decide to plead out you save the court some money, fill out some forms, and become a convicted criminal. It speeds the process up and most likely you’ll have sentencing on the lighter side of things. Your lawyer should be fighting back-and-forth if you have harsher or unreasonable punishments. They should also know the district you’re in and the punishments they typically give. Some are worse than others (don’t drive and drive in Van Nuys).
If you go with discovery, you’ll not hear from your lawyer for a little bit of time, and then get called in to look at the video, and look at the other documents. Your lawyer will look over these documents very carefully, hoping for an error, typo, anything - sometimes there will be tiny mistakes that cause the charge to be invalid, and can be grounds for a dismissal. Before you get your hopes up, remember that cops know about this, and they’re going to be really diligent about making sure that info is correct. Getting off on a typo is about as rare as being struck by lightning.
Then you get to watch the video of you getting arrested. It’s not fun, I was dreading it in the days leading up to it, but it’s not that bad. Most of it, like the field sobriety tests, take place out of view of the camera. You’ll watch it, your lawyer will watch it, and mostly conclude that everything that took place was legal. At this point your lawyer will advise you what to do, and you’ll most likely take the plea.
However, it’s incredibly important to remember that your lawyer cannot make your decisions for you. They are your defender and advisor. If you don’t want to take a plea, they cannot make you. If, for some reason, they want to fight it more and you want to plead out, they cannot make you fight any longer. They work for you. They can give opinions, and should, but they cannot and should not make any beg decisions for you, no matter how much in your best interest it may be.
You should probably listen to your lawyer, but if you want to do something else - that’s your call.
Once you plead, as I did, they take you through what exactly you’re admitting to, what you’re not, etc. Then they slip back into filing paperwork mode for you.
As you can see, it’s a far cry from the ads saying they’re going to work miracles for you. They sell you false hope. That said, they still serve a very important purpose.
Again, my best advice - talk to many lawyers, visit at least two, overeducate yourself, trust your gut, and pick one that best fits you.
It’s not easy, I know. But you can do this.