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Survive A DUI

How to get through getting a DUI - both mentally, and legally.

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Getting Booked

So one of the weird little… quirks… of my arrest was they didn’t actually process me. It seems to happen about 50% of the time. Anecdotally the biggest factor seems to be when you catch the police officer in their shift (although some argue if you catch them at the end of their shift that they’re more likely to issue a warning and let you go).

So after you’ve plead out or otherwise received your conviction you’ll be given a wealth of paperwork, ordering you to take the DUI classes, conditions of your probation, etc. If you haven’t been booked you’ll receive a document ordering you to go to a certain police department and turn yourself in.

When you receive this document you will not have long to turn yourself in - only seven days, and it’s not something you want to mess around with. If you fail to go in for booking you will have another court appearance and it’s generally not advisable. You don’t need to push them any more, you’ve lost, get things taken care of.

Booking offices are open 7 days a week, but may have limited hours due to budget cuts, holidays, and other reasons. Get it over with quickly in case you end up at the precinct and it ends up being closed.

When going to book yourself you’ll need your booking order, a photo ID (passport or state-ID works). I brought along my sentencing memo (the long form) just in case, but didn’t end up needing it. Better safe than sorry. I didn’t want to come back.

I had to book myself while on the hard no-driving-whatsoever suspension. Fortunately, downtown and the central government buildings are the most covered by public transportation. In any major, or large city, there should be many ways to get to your booking office.

Finding the place was a little bit difficult. The address given on my document was closed up. Doors barricaded, empty inside. I had to go to the place next door, that was labeled as a different part of the police. Again, give yourself ample time. Budget cuts have really messed with local government infrastructure. The area around these big police departments have a heavy feel. There’s hotels built just so family members can see loved ones in jail. Don’t think you’ll be able to stop in somewhere and use the bathroom - everything is on lockdown.

A friend of mine thought the idea of getting booked was really cool and wanted to take me down to get booked. They wanted to hang out, drink police coffee, and hear stories from the cops. I declined their offer, and glad I did. They won’t let anybody go into the building with you.

Walking into the building, you just get a heavy feeling. You’re looked upon as a criminal. Your mind starts to flashback through all the stories you’ve heard on the news where a typo means that they hold a guy for years wrongly, and stuff like that. Don’t worry. Again, like most of this process, your nerves will be the worst part of it. It’s a quick and easy process.

Don’t bring a bag with you, don’t bring weapons with you (as stupid as it sounds, it happens), don’t bring anything that can get you in trouble (again, it happens), and if you have any warrants out, well, this is your reckoning. You go through the metal detector and then are given forms to fill out about yourself - height, weight, address, basic stuff. Fill this out accurately as this stuff will be part of your criminal record. There’s a place for your occupation. I filed mine out, but the cops didn’t understand what I did, so they put “sales”. Apparently this is routine. It was nice to have a light, funny moment during this heavy moment for me.

You’ll be taken to a back room where you’ll have your hands scanned. What’s nice about this process is that you won’t be given the oily, difficult to remove ink when you’re usually fingerprinted by cops, instead you put your hand on a scanner that has a roller on it, and it scans your whole handprint. You can see how your handprint shows up on screen. It’s actually kinda cool.

Then comes the big moment - you have to remove any hats, glasses, earrings, facial piercings, and other accessories (best not to bring them in the first place if it can be helped) and look at a certain place on the wall for your mugshot. It’s not like it is in the movies anymore - you don’t hold up a thing with your booking numbers, you don’t turn to the side - you just look a little bit to the side. There’s no flash, it’s done by just a little webcam sized thing mounted on the ceiling.

In LA County, where I got mine, mugshots are not made available to the public. Which was nice to know that I’d never have to worry about a friend randomly googling around and coming across it, or anything like that. Kind of a bummer that I could never see it. Seems like most places are shifting away from immediately publishing mugshots on the web to prevent the business where people publish mugshots with SEO words and personal information and hold convicted people hostage - demanding money to take it down. Seems they don’t like anybody making money off of the system unless it’s them. But it’s nice to know that it’s generally becoming something that you won’t have to worry about.

After you’ve gotten your mugshot you’ll be sat down in the waiting room again, and after a few minutes you’ll be given a pink form - your prisoner’s receipt. Generally this is for having a record of your possessions when you get booked, but since you’re not actually ingested into prison, it’s just a record that you actually checked yourself in. Hold on to it just in case anything happens to where the court loses documentation on their end (it happens).

Leaving the police station, even without staying too long, felt like a big relief. It wasn’t a place I wanted to stay around. Things felt different, though. I’d been booked, handprinted, and my mugshot taken. I was a documented criminal. It’s a weird feeling to process.

I ended up hanging out in that part of town for a while. I had nowhere to be, I’d taken a personal day to get booked. Might as well explore, try out a new restaurant, hope that I wouldn’t ever return.

Shopping for the Ignition Interlock Device (IID)

When you get that big scary letter of the Order of an Ignition Interlock Device (IID) it will give you a list of approved, certified installers - I advise you to look each and every single one of them up. Getting the interlock is a difficult, complicated, and confusing process - and that’s all be design. The interlock companies want it to be difficult as can be, withholding information, giving you the run around, and doing everything they can to squeeze every last dime out of you.

What You Can Look Up Online

Most interlock companies websites are lacking a lot of information, instead asking you to put in all of your contact information - including some sensitive private information - in hopes of getting you on the phone with a salesperson. While the salesperson has some use (they can actually check with the DMV to make sure you’re in an eligible period, and theoretically answer questions) they slow down the process and make the task at hand very confusing.

But, some are nice to put some information online. You’ll never get a straightforward price from the website or the salesperson, but you can try to get as close as possible. The websites I found were usually pretty good at disclosing the location of service centers for interlocks - each company deals with a handful of mechanics, car accessory dealers, etc. (you ever wonder how those tire stores or car stereo places stay in business, here it is) and that’s it. If you find an interlock company you like, but they’re not convenient for you, don’t go with them. You will have to visit the servicer multiple times over the installation (minimum 5), and it’s best to not have to travel all the way across town for this.

All of these places will charge you an extra fee if you’re late or miss your appointment. It’s very important to have an easy place to get to. If you miss your appointment you may end up locked out of your car and forced to tow it to the servicer. Closer is better.

What to Ask on the Phone

After you’ve eliminated some places you’ll have to end up talking on the phone with a number of salespeople. Do not let this part of the process put you off. I hate talking on the phone, but people’s unwillingness to discuss the difficult part of their lives plays into these people’s hands. Don’t let them take advantage of this.

Every interlock place claims to be the cheapest around - but it’s all subjective. Many places will say the first month is free with installation, or offer a free installation, or some other way to cloud what the device will actually cost. Take lots of notes. The worst offenders are the ones who offered “No hidden fees”. I felt good about them, until talking with another provider they mentioned a removal fee. No hidden fees place did not mention this. I called them back and asked about it, and the removal free was massive. I asked them about it, and they claimed that the fee wasn’t hidden because they would mention it when asked. When talking with a lot of these salespeople I’d be asking myself, “wait, I’m the criminal here?”.

So, after a lot of calling I found myself with what I believe to be the best possible outcome for myself. Again, I don’t know the others, but in asking around, I believe I found myself the most reasonable - close, and relatively cheap to some of them. The back of the envelope math I did based on quotes had all them coming relatively close to each other… Around $450 total for 5 months, but I feel this space is shifting all of the time. Best to call around for yourself, but feel a little bit easy that getting the worst deal won’t mean a difference of hundreds of dollars. Still, this process is bleeding you dry, let’s save every dime we can.

I’ve compiled a list of the various fees I have found in my shopping and subsequent bills for the interlock device. As more people enter the business, as regulations change, I’m sure there will be more. When in doubt ask questions. Ask enough questions to be a pain in the salespersons side, until they give you the answers you deserve. They are doing their best to confuse and mislead you - if you are unsatisfied or confused by their answers let them know. At the end of the day, they’re fighting for a somewhat limited amount of customers. They need you. You can still go somewhere else.

Known Possible Fees:

  • Installation Fee - A lot of places will use this as the big smoke and mirrors to what the interlock will end up costing you. A lot of places will claim that it’s free, only to give you a rebate on either your first or last month (double check and hold them to it if that’s the case) or have a reduced fee if you pay certain months in advance. This is so that it’s super hard to compare prices. Usually if the installation is free or reduced cost your monthly cost is going to be higher (not always the case, though).
  • Late/Missed Appointment Fee - Most people find out about this after they’ve made their appointments, the rep just adds a little “oh by the way, don’t be late!”. It’s always a little twist in your side - as you’re never allowed to charge them a fee when they miss the appointment. An unscrupulous (read:most) places can even charge you for being late even if you get there late and they’re still working on the person in front of you. So they had no downtime, but they still get to stick you for the money. Get there early every time. Don’t give them the pleasure.
  • Monthly Fee - Every month that you have the IID you have to pay for it. It’s a crappy rental, and when you see the fees that you’re paying for it, you’ll wish you’d gotten into the IID business. This, however, is a consistent fee that is the most straightforward of what you’ll end up paying. There’s not much that will change about this, unless you get a free first or last month.
  • Upgraded Unit Fee - Not all interlock devices are the same - they all require different blow patterns - some short, some long, some complicated. Some states like Oregon require devices come equipped with a camera that takes a picture of the person blowing the device every time, in order to prevent a passenger from blowing the device for an intoxicated driver. In some instances a more restrictive device - like one with a camera - has less of a cost than a more simpler device (some states there is no difference, some states it costs more). Explore all your options and decide how much restriction you can tolerate if these options are available to you.
  • Keyless Start Unit Fee - If you have a push to start or remote start car, be prepared to pay more - both monthly and in installation and removal fees. The upside? Some places are able to provide you with a remote interlock that you carry with you. So you can blow and start your car remotely, just as you did before. I imagine the remote part is all sorts of handy, but, alas, I’m still in the key-ignition days.
  • Disguised Unit - Some places try to “help you out” by offering a slipcover for your interlock unit that allows it to supposedly look like a can of soda. In practice this is a method to capitalize off of your embarrassment and further profit off of you. Most of the ads for this covers make it seem as the unit will look like a 12 oz can of soda, while in practice they und up looking roughly the size of a 7-Eleven Big Gulp 32 oz jug. Some places will outright sell it to you (think of all the times you can reuse it!) and some will rent it to you for additional monthly charges, and others will give it to you free if you purchase an additional insurance policy. I say don’t bother. Even the biggest of IIDs is not very visible while driving, you will not be using it that often in view of other people, and it will not disguise the fact that you have an IID from a passenger. But, if you want it, be sure you know the total cost of it - either by purchase, rental, or attached to something else.
  • Download/Service Fee - You have to visit the place that installs your interlock device every 60 days to calibrate it and download the record of violations from the device. Some places will charge you $10-$15 a visit for this, others include it in their monthly fees. A lot of places will not tell you about this fee until you see it on your bill. Ask about it before you sign up. Also make sure that their system will allow you to visit every 60 days, as some places only charge on a monthly basis - meaning you will have to dedicate more time to visiting your servicer, more possible late/missed appointment fees, more possible lockouts, more possible service fees. I know I wanted to visit this place as least as possible.
  • Lockout Fee - Every month (or two months if bi-monthly) your IID has a lockout date. Theory goes that the machine needs to be calibrated in order to be an accurate detection of alcohol in your breath. The court dictates that the machine be calibrated at least every 60 days, but the companies take it one step further and make it so that your car can completely lock you out if you miss your appointment - so you now have to tow your car to the service center and then pay them an additional fee to get your system back working again. Don’t miss your appointments. There can be some additional blowback from the court if you do, as it’s a violation of your restricted license… just don’t do it. Don’t get locked out. There’s no good reason to.
  • Lockout Code Fee - Some interlock devices have a keycode that you can punch in to give you an engine start, or period of engine starts, if, for some reason, you miss your appointment and get locked out, so that you can get to the service center and get your IID recalibrated. Of course, they’ll charge you a fee for this code. Don’t miss your appointments.
  • Violation Fee - If you have enough violations - either for too much alcohol in your system when trying to start your car (again, you should have your own breathalyzer so that you can check before you blow into your IID), or for trying to tamper with the device the court will take away your restricted license privileges, but your IID company can also fine you. It just keeps coming.
  • Warranty - One I didn’t see coming. Some installers will charge you a monthly fee that theoretically protects you in case the device breaks (in a manner that doesn’t look like you were trying to bypass the device). Would it in practice? I don’t know. I’m not going to find out. But when comparing prices see if they’re going to tack it on.
  • Insurance - The same as a warranty, but can also be purchased separately. In my experience the machine shouldn’t be beaten up too much, once you find a good place for it that’s out of the way when driving, it shouldn’t take too much wear and tear, but accidents do occur, I suppose. If you get it, know what it covers, ask if there’s a deductible (that’s where they get you), and know the ins and outs. Also double check if your current car insurance policy covers it (you have the SR-22, they know you have a DUI).
  • Damage - This should be conditional with you actually damaging the damn thing, but find out what their policy is before it happens. The devices are can be damaged by heat, animals, water spills, auto accidents, know what will happen to you in case this happens.
  • Theft/Loss - Most of the units are removable. Supposedly they can be damaged by extreme heat and extreme cold, so if you are in those environments, you are encouraged to take the unit with you to protect it. Does anybody actually do this? I have no idea. However, if you take it with you and somehow lose it (I don’t know how this would happen since you can’t drive without it) or your car is stolen (and the ignition interlock device is actually a fairly decent theft deterrent system), you should know what the consequences are.
  • Replacement Forms - If you misplace the paperwork, or make a mistake filling it out, they will charge you for replacements - even if you mess up when first filling it out. Stupid, I know, unfair, I know, nothing you can do. Fill it out carefully.
  • Tax - The IID is not a taxable item. However, most people do not know this and a shady vendor could be charging you tax and pocketing it. Do not allow this to happen. Alert the authorities if this happens.
  • Credit/Debit Card Fee - The bane of my existence at my nearest lunch spots. Some places can charge you for using your credit card. Usually a dollar or two, but still, it’s important to know.
  • Personal Check Fee/Bounced Check Fee - I don’t recall any of the places I dealt with saying that they accepted personal checks, but I didn’t ask. I’ve only paid my taxes and my court fees with a check in the last number of years. I’m going to guess most likely you aren’t either - but if for some reason checks are your preferred way to pay, make sure they take them, and make sure you know if and what they charge.
  • Cash Fee - Not sure I’ve seen this for anything, but, if you like to pay cash, know the drill. Do they need exact change?
  • Removal Fee - This is one of the fees they don’t want you to know about. A lot of people complete their IID then get that extra little kick in the pants for $75-$120 when they find out that there’s a cost to remove the IID. Again - a place that boasted “No Hidden Fees” hid this fee from me until I asked. They know you’ll pay this fee because at this point you’ll be sick of the dang thing. Supposedly you can do this yourself if you’re a gearhead and return the unit. I’m certainly not skilled enough, nor would I want to risk some sort of mixup and the court seeing this as a violation, or the service center erroneously claiming that I damaged it. Let them take it off, I’ll get something to eat.

Pricing and preparing for all of this is a difficult task. Especially with all the callbacks, run around, hiding of information, it’s exhausting to deal with. Again, this is what they want. They want to drain you dry so that you settle and just say fine. They need you, you have your pick. Ask as many questions as possible, they are leaving something out.

More Than Just Proof Of Insurance: The SR-22

Both your criminal conviction and the conditions to reinstate your license (either restricted or full) will be that you carry proof of insurance. Easy right? You’ve always driven with insurance.

Unfortunately, that’s not what they’re looking for. Yes, you absolutely have to keep your current insurance (if they will keep you) but additionally you’re going to have to add an SR-22 to your policy.

Like most people, I didn’t know what an SR-22 was besides hearing about it on the radio ads for sketchy places that will insure you without a license. An SR-22 addition means that you’re a high risk driver in that you either got a DUI or into a serious accident. It’s just a proof that you have insurance and that your company knows that you’ve been in trouble before. The SR-22 itself isn’t insurance. It offers no additional coverage or protection. CA law requires you to keep it for 3 years, other states have similar polices and varying amount of times, but 3 years is the standard. Once that’s up, drop it from your policy.

Here’s the big “gotcha” of the whole thing: if you switch insurance companies and get a separate SR-22, your three years will start over. This is an incredibly easy mistake to make, don’t get caught up in it. Once you get your SR-22 you are free to change insurance companies, just make sure they do an SR-22 transfer. Then it will continue to count and you’ll be over it as quickly as can be.

Additionally, in California at least, the SR-22 is never a document that you will hold in your hand. You purchase it, then it’s sent to the DMV, and you’re given an estimation of when it will arrive. Not particularly helpful, but whatever. In a pinch I’m told it can be faxed in a matter of hours. In a world of instant gratification, this part is a complete hassle and frustration.

Getting the SR-22 isn’t hard, but it’s a pain. My insurance company has an app and reporting a claim is super easy, I don’t have to talk to people, it’s like ordering a pizza in this day and age.

There’s nowhere to get an SR-22 in the app. You have to call. Now that we have our technology, I hate to make the call, but you have to make the call. No insurance company (that I know of) allows you to get one over their website, or anything else. This also comes with them asking why you’re being required to get one. You gotta tell them, sadly. This is usually how your insurance finds out about your DUI, and adjusts their rates accordingly.

The Consumer Advocates guide to SR-22 is helpful and can lead you to finding the best rate.

Can I get an SR-22 without telling my insurance company?

A common question. I looked into it. You actually can.

I don’t recommend it. I really don’t recommend it.

There’s two types of SR-22 - one for owners of a car, and one for non-owners. When you get your DUI you’re going to get all sorts of mailings from people saying that they can give you an SR-22 without telling your insurance company. They’re trying to sell you a non-owners SR-22 for the car that you own (leasing, etc. counts). They’re trying to tell you that it will be fine. It will not be fine.

First of all, the DMV knows whether you own a car or not. They’re going through your file already, it will be very easy for them to put 2 and 2 together when you go into the DMV to get your license reinstated with a form saying that you put an interlock device on your car, with an SR-22 that says that you don’t own a car. You laugh, but people have tried it.

Additionally, if you’re in an accident, all of your shit comes up, and it’ll be clear that you tried to get around it. Which would be a violation of your plea bargain, and that will get you in a world of trouble. In some states you are required to keep the SR-22 with your car. When you get pulled over in your car with a non-owner SR-22, well, it’s easy.

Basically, so many things can go wrong with this, it’s not even funny. I know you want to try to get away with something at this point because you feel that everybody’s turning the screws on you, but this isn’t it.

But the biggest thing is that non-owner SR-22s are really expensive. Anywhere from $75-100 a month.

Typically, your insurance will not raise your rates by near that amount.

It’s not worth it.

The Watson Murder Laws

Once you’re convicted of a DUI, your life doesn’t change much. As days go by the shame and the guilt fade, your suspensions clear, your probation goes away, you can get the charge expunged, and after 10 years, your DUI can’t be used as a prior conviction should you get another DUI.

However, there is one thing that does change for good - in California part of your conviction requires you to sign a “Watson Advisement” - which says that if you drive under the influence again and cause a fatality you may be charged with second degree murder.

There is no way to avoid signing the Watson Advisement. Technically, you can be charged with a Watson Murder the first time you’re driving under the influence and cause a fatality, but it’s hard to get the Watson laws to stick to that. Basically the Watson Advisement ups the penalties for repeat offenders.

The murder charge becomes second-degree because it acknowledges that you didn’t set out to murder the victim, but you that your taking of alcohol (or other drugs) and driving a car were both intentional acts and created “implied malice”.

A Watson Murder can result in 15 years in prison, a $10,000 fine, and a strike under the “three strikes” law.

Once you’ve signed the Watson Advisement its provisions do not expire. You can be charged 50 years after your DUI if you cause a fatality while driving under the influence.

The biggest lesson to learn from your first DUI is to find ways to avoid drinking and driving. If the possibility of being considered a murderer doesn’t do it, I don’t know what will.

Pleading Out: Making A Plea Bargain

When you get arrested for suspicion of DUI there's two main schools of thought when it comes to your court case - I'm going to fight this, or just give me the minimums and let me get this over with. Unless there's a spectacular mistake or injustice made, even in the case of the most focused fighter, they usually become a person who just wants to put it to bed.

The DUI process is long, and it's taxing in a lot of ways - financially, mentally, logistically. But it all comes to an end one way or another.

The vast majority of cases are settled by a plea bargain. You don't go to trial, you save court costs, you save time, and you (hopefully) get a minimal sentence or close to it. You can fight it, but you've given the state the evidence they need to convict you. This is the part where you really feel like you're being eaten up by the gears of the system. The deck is stacked, and you didn't have much of a chance to begin with.

So, it's always with a heavy sigh that somebody says, "Ok, I'll take the plea bargain".

It feels both heavy, in that now, as soon as you sign it and return it you are a convicted criminal. How did your life end up like this? But there's also a lightness in saying, "alright, I messed up, lemme do what I gotta do, and put it behind me".

When you're offered the plea bargain, you should know all of the terms involved - what the fines will be, how much (if any) jail time, how long the DMV program will be, the conditions of an interlock device, suspension, the driver's license suspension, any additional charges involved in this plea (any charge you picked up in your stop, can be rolled into this plea and effectively dismissed as well), everything. Be sure to ask as many questions as you possibly can. Get your money's worth out of your lawyer, get the public's money out of your public defender, or if you're representing yourself, get the prosecutor to lay out every single bit of it. Know your plea forwards, backwards, and upside down before you sign anything. Do not sign anything you do not understand.

Absolutely, under no circumstances sign anything you do not understand or did not agree to.

There shouldn't be anything screwy in there, it's a procedure the prosecutor goes through hundreds of times a week, but, once again, and I cannot emphasize it enough - Do not sign anything you have questions about or have not been informed about.

Alright, I think we've on the same page now.

How do you plead?

The first thing you need to understand about the plea bargain is what the actual plea is - there's two options "Guilty", which is what it sounds like, and nolo contendere, which is a little bit different, and what you should be pleading.

Nolo contendere means No Contest, but the legal system likes to stick to using latin wherever possible so the phrase has hung around. Pleading No Contest is the same as pleading guilty for the most part - you still get a charge, you still skip the trial, you still get punished - but pleasing No Contest has a little quirk that actually, for once, goes in your advantage: a plea of No Contest cannot be used against you in a civil case as an admission of guilt. So if you were drunk and hit a parked car, the owner suing you can't use you taking a No Contest plea as proof that you did it and admitted to it. If you plead guilty you can. For most DUIs coming from traffic stops or checkpoints there won't be a civil case associated, but you should take the protection anyway. Any time the legal system offers you protection, just take it. It also allows you to mentally not have the word "guilty" attached to yourself, which is good for your headspace.

The Plea Form

The plea form itself is a long document that asks you to agree to nearly 40 different statements - it looks daunting, but if you understand the offer given to you it isn't bad. Here's a quick walkthrough:

The first two statements are that you understand you that you have a right to an attorney. Easy enough. You pick whether you have one or not.

The next section lays out the charges against you - that you drove under the influence, that you had a BAC of .08, whether you were driving a commercial vehicle (special charges and BAC restrictions on those), and if you were reckless or not. It also has a place that can add on any other related charges to your crime (open container, no license, etc). Be absolutely sure to only initial the boxes that correspond to the actual charges against you. I wasn't driving a commercial vehicle, so I did not initial that box. Under no circumstance should you agree to anything that you weren't charged with - this will come back to haunt you. Again, if you don't understand something, you can ask your attorney, the prosecutor, or the judge, even.

Afterwards comes a section where you waive your rights. It's always disheartening as an American to give up any of your rights, but this gets the process moving. If you're pleading out you've already decided that you do not want a jury trial, or produce evidence, and that you don't want to cross examine people. Also, by pleading you are self-incriminating, and giving up your right to silence. You've already implicitly agreed to these concepts, but seeing them in writing makes it a little bit difficult. Give up your rights? This is America. Eh. At this point it's all a formality.

Then you're presented with the consequences of your actions - there's a chart with the minimum and maximum punishments and you agree that you understand the range of what can happen. What's really important to understand is that this is where you agree to the Watson provision - where if you drink and drive again, and end up in a collision that results in a fatality you may be charged with second degree murder. Let that sink in for a second. Screw up again and you may find yourself fighting a murder charge. If that doesn't motivate you to avoid a second charge, nothing will.

Additionally in this section you agree to pay court costs in addition to the penalty. The on-the-books penalty for a DUI is $390-$1000, but you end up paying much more because the various fees and court costs they tack on to your conviction. There is no way around these. You cannot fight them. Again, you're just caught up in the gears of the machine.

This section goes on to illustrate the differences in the DMV case vs the criminal case, which you should understand at this point as you've been pretty well through it and may be on some phase of your DMV suspension.

Then you have your plea - either Guilty or No Contest, your signature (remember what I said earlier, nothing is valid until you sign it, be sure of what you're getting into), what charge you're pleading to (triple check it), the date, and agreeing to be sentenced when the court receives the document, or when a temporary judge receives it.

As a plea bargain is a court document you will have to get it notarized. A real pain if there's not one by your lawyer's office and you're serving out your suspension. It also sucks that you have to go into a notary's office, with your head down low, and show them that you're taking a plea bargain. It's just what you have to do.

Not such a bargain

The plea bargain isn't a complicated document, but it's a daunting one. It's imposing, and it will mess with you emotionally, as once it's submitted, there's no going back.

But that's something you can use to your advantage - there's no going back, then it's time to move forward. Once you've agreed to the plea bargain, there's no more surprises, no more ambiguity. You know what you have to do, and when to do it by, and how to do it.

It's the biggest step to putting all of this behind you.

The Discovery Process: Presenting The Evidence

In the United States you have the right to see any and all evidence the state has against you. This is one of the foundations of Due Process, right up there with the right to an attorney. This is taken incredibly seriously, as any withholding of evidence by the prosecution is an incredibly serious charge. They’re going to give it all to you, including any evidence that supports your innocence (spoiler alert: 99.9999% of times there isn’t any).

I went through the discovery process because I thought there was a chance that my stop was illegal based on what the cop said to me at the time of arrest (that I was weaving within my lane, not outside of it). Usually your lawyer or public defender will show up at your first hearing and meet with the prosecutor, who will usually try to offer a plea bargain just to move the process along quicker and cheaper for everybody. At this point you can take the plea, or move into discovery. There’s always the vague threat that if you go to discovery that your current minimalistic plea bargain could be rescinded and a more harsh one be offered afterwards as some sort of “punishment” for using more of the court’s time. In the vast majority of cases this will not happen (I can make no promises for every single one, of course), and it didn’t happen in mine.

Should you decide to go further your lawyer will file for requests of the police report, the video from the traffic stop, and any other evidence the state has against you. Doing this will not add to your court fees, nor should it cost you more money with your lawyer if you have them on retainer. Getting these materials will take some time and most likely you’ll have a court date moved because of this. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

The waiting time for these materials to be produced is a really odd one. You’re going to turn over every single scenario in your head - did this happen? did that happen? I swear I didn’t do x… but what if video shows I did? You can’t really judge your actions that much - at this point it’s a few months after your arrest, and you were at least somewhat intoxicated. Nor can you judge what your actions look like to somebody else. It’s all a mystery, one you will try to solve over and over again, but get no closer.

After some time your lawyer will receive the documents in question and call you in. There’s a certain level of anxiety involved in knowing that you’re going to watch the footage of you getting arrested. My stomach was turning, I didn’t want to see it, I couldn’t see it, I had to see it. I think I ended up buying a mini-bottle from a nearby liquor store just to settle my nerves before walking in the door to my lawyer’s office.

The various law enforcement agencies across the nation all use different formats for their video. Get arrested in some places, you get to watch yourself in crystal clear full-color HD. Some places you get a blurry, vague SD picture that looks like it came out of an old 7-Eleven security cam. Some will deliver the videos digitally, some on DVD, and some in weird proprietary formats that your lawyer may have a difficult time opening up on their PC. There’s no real standard. Some will allow you to jump around in the video, some only let you restart it. None of it makes the process easier.

Watching the video of my arrest wasn’t easy… but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Your brain switches to analytical mode, looking for that sliver of hope, that off-chance that something on this tape disqualifies everything… but you’re probably not likely to find it. I didn’t.
My tire had crossed one of the lines, I was done. My weaving wasn’t too bad actually, but I had crossed the line and that was enough to get me. It’s important to know that a cop can pretty much pull you over, they have enough byzantine laws and regulations to make sure they can find some reason to pull you over if they want to. It didn’t help me when my lawyer confirmed that they had enough to perform a legal stop on me and added, “Y’know, I watch these all the time, and it mostly comes down to luck.”

Mine had run out.

I could have continued to fight it if I wanted, but, there wasn’t much to fight.

It was time for a plea bargain.

The DMV Case vs The Criminal Case

One of the little "quirks" of the DUI process is that when you're arrested you find yourself faced with two charges against you for one crime. It's not Double Jeopardy - it's a loophole that they're exploiting against you.

The case that's against you - technically just a ticket for a DUI - is a criminal case and it belongs to the court. The court can fine you, imprison you, suspend your license, require an ignition interlock device, it has a lot of range. This is what you get your lawyer for, this is the main thing you defend yourself against.

However, it's not the complete case against you. When you sign the agreement to get your driver's license, you agree to not drink and drive. It's in the fine print that you didn't read, and if you did, it's not like you're going to say "If I can't drink, then I don't want to drive!".

Because you have violated the agreement, the DMV can punish you on their own, in a cival case against you independently of your criminal case. Your court case can get dismissed, delayed, rejected, etc. and you can still lose your license because of the DMV's hearing against you. It's completely not fair, I agree, but them's the breaks.

It is 100% possible to beat your court case and still face a suspension of your license.

In California you have just 10 days from your arrest to request a hearing about your case, otherwise your license will be suspended automatically for six months for a first offense(other states have similar laws, some even harsher). Supposedly the phone number that you call to request this hearing has a high volume to it, making it a long affair to request this hearing (I don't know, my lawyer took care of this for me, and he claims that lawyers have an alternate number they can call for this. I, of course, have no way of verifying these claims).

After your DMV hearing is requested you can drive anywhere you want, at any time, free and clear, just as long as you aren't drinking - until your trial you are on a zero-tolerance suspension, and can have your license fully suspended for a year if you're found with any detectable amount of alcohol in your system.

Given that you'll still be a little shaky from your arrest, and already watching over your back, you don't need any more distractions from your driving. Grab an Uber, don't risk it.

Dealing with the DMV during your DUI adventure is just as much of a pain as dealing with the court is. The complete suspension of your driver's license is the most difficult, day-to-day affecting part of your sentencing, and it comes with multiple visits to the DMV (reason enough not to get a DUI), lots of waiting, the utter hassle of the ignition interlock device (IID), and the paying of small, but annoying, fees on top of this.

Even if you beat the case, you still lose.

The Various Outcomes of a DUI Arrest

Like the rest of the process - what can happen to you after your arrest isn’t the clearest. It depends on a lot of things, your BAC, if there was an accident, prior DUI arrests, etc. I’ll try to outline as many as I can, but there’s always something more that can happen… obviously if the cop finds drugs, illegal weapons, or an outstanding warrant, your case will be much more complicated.

Felony DUI
Most likely you’re not in this territory. The vast majority of DUI cases are misdemeanors, but still felony DUIs do happen. A DUI becomes a felony when you commit a traffic violation (wrong way down a one way road, run a stop light, etc.) and injure somebody because of this violation. You’ll know pretty quickly if the state is pursuing a felony charge against you - most likely you’ll have to bond yourself out of jail, and will already be dealing with the guilt of injuring somebody else. A Felony DUI usually requires 180 days in jail, a $3,000-$5,000 fine, a 4-10 year suspension of your license, a possible strike against the three-strikes law, and attendance in an 18-month, or 30-month DUI program. Yikes. It’s just not worth it. On top of that, you will will have to pay restitution to the injured parties, which will not be cheap.

Enhanced Penalty DUI/Aggravated DUI
This is for when you are arrested for DUI and are in an accident, under 21, speeding 20 miles over, or are especially intoxicated. The threshold for “especially intoxicated” is .15, but there’s a lot of judgement involved. I was at a .15, barely, and for whatever reason they did not pursue these charges against me. A .20 BAC is where they must throw these penalties at you, anything in between .15-.20 is up to the whims of those against you. Even if you were at a .20 it’s not the end of the world. It’s still a misdemeanor. Occasionally you can get rid of the additional penalties if you plead out, depending on how close to the line you were. The additional charges against you will depend on how it was aggravated - but most likely, you’re looking at having to attend a 9-month DUI program instead of the 3-month, and have to attend some AA meetings. A hassle, for sure, unfortunate, for sure, but manageable.

DUI
The vanilla charge. The three letters that have been staring you in the face every day. This is most likely the charge you will be facing. It comes with a $390-$1000 fine (which they take on “court fees” on top of), a 5-month license suspension (which you can turn into a 30-day suspension and 5-month restricted license with an IID), a 3-month DUI program, and 3 years summary probation (more on this later, but basically you just have to be a good boy. You don’t have a probation officer, you don’t have to check in).

Wet Reckless
The Wet Reckless charge is a little bit like a mirage. Lawyers will use it as an incentive to hire them, offering you the possibility of getting it. There’s very little chance of you pleading your case down to a wet reckless. Usually it’s a compromise for when the police know their instruments were malfunctioning or otherwise can’t convict you, but still want to nail you with something. When I first read about the Wet Reckless, I started hoping and praying that I could negotiate it down to that. I didn’t stand a chance. A Wet Reckless is a DUI-light. It says you had some level of intoxication, but weren’t legally drunk. It’s not something you can be arrested for, it can only come from a plea bargain.

The Wet Reckless is a little bit complicated - it has lesser fines, no mandatory suspension from the court, you only serve a 6-week DUI program, but it still has drawbacks - the most major one is that it’s priorable - meaning if you get a DUI later on, that one will count as your second DUI. Also, while the court may not suspend your license, the DMV still can, and most certainly will, issue their own suspension. Like I said earlier, there’s not a lot of wiggle room with the DMV. So while you won’t officially be serving a DUI - you’ll be serving the worst part of the sentence - the suspension and subsequent interlock. It also counts as a DUI for purposes of traveling to Canada.

That said, you’ll have beat the system somewhat. And you have to be proud of that. But still, you most likely will not be eligible for a Wet Reckless.

Dismissal
The least likely outcome. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the DA decides not to pursue some cases. They may know it was an illegal stop or the equipment wasn’t working properly, I don’t know, and if you get yours dismissed, you won’t know either. Be careful - one person in my DUI class had the charges not filed initially, then on the last day the could have been filed they were. Really messed him up, he thought he’d gotten off. This is also the outcome of taking the case to court and somehow winning. It sounds like a dream - fighting the system and winning. Just know that there’s a few caveats to it - 1.) you’ll have to pay a lot of lawyer fees 2.) it’s a gamble, and if you lose, you may wish you’d taken the plea bargain 3.) The DMV case is separate. So while you may win your big day in court, or have no charges filed against you, the DMV can already have decided that you are guilty and your license suspended. It just isn’t fair.

I remember being presented these options from my lawyer, it looked kind of a menu. I wanted to just go “Oh, I’ll have the Wet Reckless” please. It’s not up to you anymore, unless you or your lawyer have incredible negotiation skills. People have done it, but those are outliers. You may be one, but most likely you’re not. Still, it’s good to know all the options that exist.

What your DUI Lawyer Really Does

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.

The DMV Hearing

Once you have requested the hearing you’re in a weird legal gray zone. Most likely the police confiscated your physical driver’s license upon your arrest. If not, it doesn’t matter, it’s invalid anyhow. Upon your release from either jail or holding, the police should have given you your ticket for DUI and a pink form with the DMV’s logo on it called “Age 21 and older Administrative Per Se Suspension/Revocation Order and Temporary Driver License” - this is now your driver’s license. (Despite the title most people don’t pick up on that fact, I didn’t, but I was still shell shocked). You can drive with this as long as you have a photo ID - this is why you get a passport even if you don’t intend on traveling, it’s good to have a backup ID. If not you can get a state ID, which is handy to have since you will be using your alternate ID for everything, and passports are a hassle to carry around, and can be dangerous if stolen.

What’s important to note about this pink form is that the copy you’re given was made from the impressions of carbon paper. The impressions on the front will fade quickly. It’s worthless if you get pulled over with it and a cop cannot read it. HOWEVER, it is completely legal to drive with a photocopy of this paper (as long as you have a photo ID). You are also allowed to go over the marks in pen. It seems weird that it’s legal, but, it is. You won’t be charged with tampering with the document as long as you do not make any changes whatsoever to it. Remember: they have the master document, if you get busted, they can easily find out. My lawyer provided me with both darkened copies and went over it, just in case.

This temporary license is only valid for 30 days from your arrest, however. Your DMV hearing will be more than 30 days from when you request it, so the DMV will issue you a temporary license. It clearly lays out that your suspension is stayed until your hearing date. Again, you must have a photo ID along with this piece of paper, but then you’re good to go. You can drive anywhere you want, for any reason. However, it’s important to know that you’re on probation until your trial date. This is something that they do not tell you.

Between your arrest and your trial you are on a zero-tolerance for any detectable amount of alcohol in your blood. So, even if you had one beer an hour ago, have been drinking water, if their breathalyzer comes up with a .01 you can get in trouble. Mouthwash, onions, other things can trigger a .01 on a breathalyzer, so be careful. Again - my advice is to get a portable breathalyzer and keep it in your glovebox. If you do get caught with a detectable amount the police can’t give you an additional DUI - that’s a large misconception - but they can suspend your license for a year as a violation of this probation.

In some instances you may have to delay your hearing. This can be done for a number reasons, you’ll still be able to drive in the interim, and you’ll be sent a paper with your new date on there. Technically you do not have to keep this with you as you drive, but I decided to in case I got pulled over - the temporary license says that it’s only valid through the hearing, and it could be all too easy for a cop to think that my story about delaying the hearing was bullshit, so I wanted to have as much documentation as possible. Just put it in the glovebox and forget it. You don’t have to, but I can’t see a reason why you wouldn’t.

Additionally, if you have recently visited the DMV or did after your arrest, you may have a license arrive in the mail. Officially you’re supposed to surrender this license, but the process of how exactly to do that isn’t that clear even from the DMV. The bottom line is, if you get one, don’t get caught with it. Don’t carry it on you, don’t have it in your car. Throw it away, shred it, put it in your files. You will never be asked for any evidence that you surrendered it, but you can be facing some stiff penalties if you present it to a police officer at a traffic stop. Don’t worry about keeping it for when your suspension is up, you will have to visit the DMV and get a new one anyhow.

Your DMV hearing will be over the phone, usually in the mid-day. There’s a checkbox for it to be in person, but I don’t know how you get that, or why you’d want to. It’s important to know that DMV hearing is the most harsh part of this whole thing - there’s no sympathy, it’s as cut-and-dry as a trip to the DMV. You have to have all your documents in order, everything has to be filled out just right, you’ve been through it. This hearing asks two basic questions - 1.) Was the stop a legal stop? 2.) Was the operator intoxicated? That’s it. There’s no arguments, there’s no throwing yourself upon the mercy of the court, that’s all you get.

99% of the time you will be found in violation. Just be prepared for that.

The DMV hearing is going to trust your arresting officer pretty much all of the time, and neither you, nor your lawyer have the evidence against you to argue a point. You don’t have the calibration information, you don’t have the video of your arrest, and even if you did - it’s taking place over the phone. Even the most braggadocious lawyer will tell you that it’s nearly impossible to win this hearing.

As such you’re facing a 5 month suspension of your drivers license - but this can be adjusted. You absolutely must serve 30 days of what’s known as a hard suspension - no driving, for any reason, whatsoever. Tune up the bike, get a pair of comfy walking shoes, learn the route the bus takes, grab an uber, do anything but drive. If you get caught the penalties for driving on a suspended license for DUI are the toughest of all the driving on a suspended license penalties. They take this charge extremely seriously. Some of the people in my DUI classes drove without it. I looked up the penalties - Possible 1 year complete “hard” suspension, 3 years probation, $2000 fine, 10 days in County Jail, and 3 years of the IID. No thank you. No thank you at all. It gets worse if you get into an accident or get another DUI while driving on a suspended license. Just avoid it all together.

Once the 30 days are up you can apply for a restricted license - which will allow you to drive any vehicle equipped with an ignition interlock device (IID) for five months (so it extends the total suspension to six months, but you’re driving). They used to also put a restriction that only allowed you to drive to and from your place of work and/or school, but I didn’t receive any such restriction. I don’t think they’re giving it out as much, as their concerns are not where you go, but what’s in your blood when you’re driving. I wasn’t expecting to not get this restriction, so I asked my lawyer a lot of questions about the work/school restrictions. First of all, if you do get them, it does allow you to go to your DUI program - previously I had read that this wasn’t allowed and that cops would use the classes as a trap, but this isn’t true. Second, the lawyer basically spelled it out to me as this: a cop doesn’t know where you’re coming from, where you’re going, the hours you work, etc. As long as you have a reasonable explanation (work function, meeting, etc.) and don’t have a pile of groceries in the front seat, you should be able to skirt the restriction somewhat. It’s really hard to prove where you were intending to go and for what purpose. This is, of course, a dicey strategy, but it doesn’t seem like your destination is a high priority for the police.

Having gone through the process - this, in my opinion, is the most difficult part. The 30 days without a car and driving with the IID are hassles, and kind of just rubbing your nose in it. It does work as a preventative measure for a repeat offense. I’ve had enough of this, it’s not worth it.

To Blow, Bleed, Or Say No. - Should I refuse a breathalyzer test or field sobriety test?

This is complicated, and opinions are all over the place with regards to this topic, so I’ll try to relay as much as I can.

When you get pulled over you are being investigated for a crime, whether one has been committed or not, whether it’s speeding or a DUI. As you learned from fifth grade on under the power of the 5th Amendment you do not have to provide evidence against yourself.

Except you kind of have to.

Technically you can refuse answering any question the police officer asks you outside of identifying yourself. You can refuse the field sobriety test, and the field breathalyzer. These are your rights. However, they cops have legal loopholes around it. If you’ve felt that this whole thing is rigged against you, you’re not too far off.

Implied Consent

When you get your drivers license you sign a number of things, check a bunch of boxes without reading them or giving them much thought. It’s the American way. Unfortunately some of those can come back to bite you.

When you get your license you’re giving the state implied consent for them to test your BAC for alcohol. If you refuse to do this, you’re now breaking the law, and you can still get the DUI on top of it. Some states will even use your refusal as evidence that you were intoxicated. Ridiculous.

Refusal laws vary heavily from state-to-state. Texas just suspends your license for 6 months, Utah gives you a court hearing where you have to argue your reasons for refusing and if found to be unreasonable you get an 18-month suspension. Yikes.

In California, where I got mine, the way it works is that you can refuse the field sobriety tests, and the field breathalyzer with no real penalties except to know the cop is absolutely going to be a jerk to you and definitely take you downtown. From here you are given the choice of the station’s breathalyzer, which is a heavily regulated and court-admissible machine, or a blood test, which has to be done by a nurse, so they may take you to a hospital instead. Refuse either of these and you’re faced with a 1-year suspension, possible 96-hour jail sentence, and a 9-month DUI program. Harsh.

The penalties are rough enough to make it a really difficult decision - 1 year without driving, especially in a place as spread out as California would be incredibly difficult. It’s enough to make people take the pragmatic route and say “Well, if I do blow and get a DUI, I’ll be out of a license for 30 days minimum and 5 months maximum…”, which is a really weird place to be in.

Texas and a few other states often have “No Refusal” weekends - where they have a judge or magistrate on call. If you refuse to do your tests, they order a warrant, and force you to submit to these tests. Some cities have this law on the books 24/7. It’s disparaging to see governments willfully take the rights away from people, even if it is the rights of criminals.

Understandably if you are on probation for a DUI, you cannot refuse. I’m a little bit more ok with this since it’s a part of my conviction, and I have been made well aware of the conditions around it. The same goes for if you’re under 21, which I get as well (sorry, kids).

The Breath Test
I wasn’t asked which test I wanted to do. I was told once I was at the station that I could do a blood test, but that would mean a lot of travel and was basically given a lot of implications that they’d make it rough for me. Great. They took me into their testing room and had me blow two times, fifteen minutes apart, all while telling me to blow harder (something they’re technically not supposed to do). I blew over and that was it.

In the discovery part of the trial your lawyer will look through the documents that the police give them about the machine - last date of calibration, self-tests, etc. Once upon a time you might have been able to rely on the police letting routine maintenance of this machine to fall through the cracks, but as the machine is a proven money maker for them, I can’t imagine that happens all that often.

The Blood Test
If you opt for the blood test the cops will either take you to a hospital or have a nurse-on-staff draw blood from you. They can’t do it themselves, so don’t let them. The blood test is a more accurate test, which can either work for or against you when compared to the breath test. More importantly it provides a sample that can be retested, has lot of human components that would disqualify it in a trial, and things can go wrong. One of the guys in my DUI class claims that they may have forgotten to refrigerate his blood, causing fermentation and a higher BAC result (however he didn’t take his case to trial so it’s all moot, and who knows what the truth may be.)

However, it’s not without it’s problems - if you drank and then immediately began to drive, the time that it took you to get pulled over, taken to the station, then subsequently taken to the hospital may allow your BAC to peak at a much higher reading than the BAC level of when you were driving.

Getting your BAC level back from the lab can take some time, which can lead to 1) a period of a few weeks where you have your pending results hanging over your head, stressing you out at every turn, and 2) a situation where you may have to travel back to the police station to book yourself for this crime.

Some people are just afraid of needles, too.

Decisions

So, what should you do? Sadly, I can’t answer for you. What’s important is that if you choose to do a test only do one test. That’s all you’re required to do. Often cops will try to mount evidence against you, do not help them in this.

I’ve looked back on my case and gone back and forth on what I should have done. The decision is a lot easier knowing my BAC, but at the time of my arrest, I had no idea. Honestly, I don’t think I could have made the decision at the time. I think I would’ve been incredibly afraid of the one year without driving for refusal. Oddly enough, getting convicted of a DUI has allowed me to drive much more than if I had refused. I felt I didn’t have an option in blowing, but if I went and took the blood test it could have easily risen to .16, where penalties would’ve been much worse than the ones I received. Plus it was more convenient, which sounds stupid and flippant, but in dealing with all of this, especially the police, there’s a large part of you that just wants to get it over so you can go wallow in self-grief.

Sometimes there’s no good options.

If I get pulled over again? Well, having gone through this, let me tell you - I’m doing everything in my power not to let that happen. The Uber bills have been stacking up, and taking the train can be a drag, but it beats the drag that would be on me if I had to go through this. Since I now have a prior, I would be not allowed to drive for two years if I refused. That’s scary. I don’t know that I can do that.

What do lawyers say? In doing my research for this I’ve found that they’re split - some say you should absolutely never take the tests, some say refuse every test you can, the field sobriety test and field breathalyzer, and take the blood test. Some attorneys like the fallibility of the breath test. Some point out that in most cases it won’t matter a lot which test you take.

The classmates of mine that I spoke to who refused tended to regret it, mostly because they were under the impression that by not blowing they thought they could avoid the DUI charge. They could not, and received a long suspension and class because of it.

Again, if you’re out and have had too much to drink, call a cab, even if it means that you’re going to get a ticket on your car the next day. It is all so, so, so, so, so much easier than this. I’ll gladly take a $72 street cleaning ticket than have to make that decision.

DUI and Fatalities

I was fortunate in my case that there was no accident, no injuries, and no fatalities. You may not have been so lucky, in which case - again - I’m sorry. I cannot begin to imagine the pain and guilt that’s weighing on yourself, and the grief you’re catching from others. You may be wishing that it was you that died, you may be thinking some dark thoughts. While I cannot condone your actions, I cannot condemn you as a human being for one instance, one mistake.

As I’ve experienced from this whole saga, the person who beat me up the most was me. I got deeply depressed for a while, and I am still crawling out from the grief and sorrow of all of this. You can still live a good and meaningful life. It’s awful this happened, but it doesn’t have to define you for the rest of your life. If you are having dark and troubling thoughts please call: 1 (800) 273-8255

If there’s a fatality involved your case becomes a lot more complicated. It’s more difficult to give a decent idea of what you’re looking at. For this I would say absolutely get a lawyer involved as it’s going to be very difficult to navigate.

From worst to first here’s the various outcomes:

2nd Degree Homicide
Gulp. Even if you weren’t involved in an accident just seeing that word involved with your case is scary. It’s a reminder to never drink and drive if you can help it at all. Once you’re convicted of your first DUI you have to sign a Watson advisement, which acknowledges that if you kill somebody in your second (or more) DUI then it can be charged as homicide. Just signing the document is scary enough… and it’s something that will stay in the back of your mind as you continue your life. If you’re found guilty the most severe penalties are up to 10 years in prison, $10,000 in fines and a charge of a Felony DUI.

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
A lot of scary terms here. This one is a little bit more complicated - and you can get this one on your first offense. Basically this means that you were intoxicated and you were acting grossly negligent - and it’s a rather large thing to prove. For instance, this is what you’d be convicted of if you were completely wasted (let’s say .25) and ran through a stoplight at 60 miles per hour and hit somebody who was making a turn through the intersection and killed them. Everything you did was in gross negligence of the law, and everything you did directly lead to the person who died. If you are found to be only ordinarily negligent, you cannot be charged with this. This is heavy lawyer territory. This charge is a felony and you can serve anywhere from 4-16 years in prison, face a $10,000 fine, and be charged with a felony DUI.

Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
There’s two degrees to this charge - Felony and Misdemeanor. Unfortunately, there’s no clear line to say this is where they’ll charge you for one, and this is where they’ll charge you for the other. It depends on how negligent you’re found, your BAC, the amount of people killed, etc. If you just missed being found grossly negligent from above, you’ll most likely find yourself facing the felony version. The felony version can give you up to ten years in prison, a $10,000 fine, and a strike on your record, along with your felony DUI. The misdemeanor version tops out at $1,000 fine, a year in prison, but you can still be charged with a felony DUI instead of a misdemeanor DUI.

As you can see, when lives are taken, the system gets to be incredibly complicated. There’s no solid limits, and everything is up for interpretation. Which, honestly, can be good and bad, depending on your level of representation. At this point, it’s a good idea to get the best lawyer that you can’t afford, max out the credit cards, and pray for the best.

Once again, it’s all not worth it. It’s really not.

What about a Public Defender?

In the United States, we have the right to a legal defense whether we can afford one or not. Kinda. The public defender system exists in the hopes of providing everybody with a shot at defending themselves in their legal matters, but it’s a woefully bad system.

You know the whole “if you cannot afford an attorney one will be provided for you”? bit of the miranda rights? The definition of being able to afford one if very narrow, and often you won’t be able to qualify. You have to be able to prove that you cannot afford a private attorney, and what qualifies as being unable is very narrow. It is incredibly easy to not be able to afford a lawyer, and making too much to qualify to receive a public defender. If you’re trapped in this “donut hole” I can only offer you my deepest sympathies.

There’s no clear cut threshold of what qualifies or doesn’t. I was given a rough outline once and completely dismissed the thought - and I was not making a lot of money at all.

As for the quality of the public defenders - this is a mixed bag. Some attorneys find they have a duty to give back, and volunteer their time with the public defenders office. These lawyers are exceptionally rare.

Most of the time public defenders are overworked lawyers just trying to make it to the end of the day. They have little time for your case, and little time for you. A private lawyer may not answer all of your emails or calls, but many they will, they will have an exponential amount of time for you.

It’s a terribly broken system. One so bad, that it gets a Jon Oliver clip:



Hiring A Lawyer

Having called many lawyers, visited a few, and agonizing over the decision, I was ready to hire a lawyer. It’s an important milestone in the process because it’s the first time where you decide to put up a defense - as feeble as it may be.

Even if you are completely guilty, you need to defend yourself. Even if you have no priors, you need to defend yourself. The legal system is tricky, there’s so many opinions that come into play, even in what should be a clear cut case, you need to defend yourself.

I naively believed that I could beat my case, so I hired a punchy lawyer. Based on what I knew then, it was the right choice for me at the time. Now, now I believe I could have saved myself some money, but not a lot.

Could I afford the lawyer? Not really. But I didn’t feel that I had much of an option. The legal system is scary. I wasn’t afraid that they’d lock me up for life, but I was worried abut all the different options that could happen to me. A public defender didn’t seem to be an option, and I certainly couldn’t go for it myself.

So, I made my pick, and told him my financial circumstances, and he worked with me. I didn’t expect this, but if you want, you can just put your lawyer services on a credit card. It’s not the most financially sound option (I think, I’m not great at that stuff), but it’s there. Most will also take payments - either monthly or quarterly. So, now for 18 months, I pay a bit of my legal fees off. The way things worked out, it’s not the huge drain I thought it would be. Have to tighten up the belt a bit, for sure, but, it wasn’t as bad as I imagined it would have been, nor as bad as I thought when the numbers came sliding across my lawyer’s desk.

I feel the sting from it, absolutely, but, it’s manageable. I’m greatly looking forward to the day I make the last payment, but, I can handle this.

Even in spite of me wrongly believing I could fight this, hiring the lawyer made me feel safe. I felt that I would be in a better position than otherwise, and for once I felt like I had somebody on my side. The whole world wasn’t against me - I’ve got my lawyer on my side!

I can’t say what’s right for you, or your situation. When it came down to it, I felt better safe than sorry. If I need money somewhere down the line, there’s always more options, working a second job, loans, etc. I wouldn’t have a second chance at this - there’s always more chances to make money.

The best way I can put it is the entire DUI process feels like you’re a kid on the playground and you’re just getting slapped around. There’s this process, and this fee, and this hurdle, and it all comes at you at once. Your lawyer is the big kid who says, “Hey, you can only slap him this many times, and you have to take turns”.

So, a little better.

I Wasn’t Read My Miranda Rights At My DUI Arrest

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?”

If you’ve seen any TV show or movie you’ve heard the Miranda rights read countless times. You’ve probably seen a TV suspect go free because some rookie cop forgot to read the perp his rights, only to have them get out of jail scott-free and kill again. Hey! You didn’t have your miranda rights read, maybe you can get out of this whole thing?

Wrong.

I didn’t have my rights read to me when they put me in the back of the cruiser. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when talking to my lawyer about the case, I remember it, hoping that it would make everything go away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter in this case.

The Miranda rights are to protect you while you’re in police custody and being interrogated. Doesn’t happen much in DUI cases. You willingly gave them most of the evidence against you at your traffic stop - before you were in custody. No Miranda rights needed there.

The only way it could serve you is if they did take you into a room and interrogate you. I’m stretching to imagine a scenario where that would be relevant. It’s not important where the vodka tonic came from, just that it was in your blood when you were driving.

So, yeah. Don’t worry about it.

I don’t know if getting read them would’ve been cool, or just made me feel worse, like I was a real criminal. Probably the latter.

The Search For A Lawyer: How to find them and what should they cost?

The biggest decision in your DUI saga will be how you want to represent yourself legally. It’s a difficult and costly decision that has a lot of pitfalls involved, and it’s one of the most “not fun” processes of the whole endeavor.

To Have A Lawyer or Not

This is an incredibly difficult decision. Unfortunately, as with most of the decisions you make during this time, there’s no way to know things would be like if you had gone the other way. It’s hard to say that you made a “right” decision - the best you can opt for is knowing that you made a “smart” decision.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that most people do not choose to get a lawyer’s help in these matters. Or, as it seems to be with most matters, people are ashamed of spending the money involved in a lawyer, and they don’t want to admit they got one. I struggled with this decision, money was already tight before I got the DUI, and the strain of this was already looking to make matters worse. I really, really, really didn’t want to spend thousands on a lawyer, every time I got quoted a price, my heart just sank.

Ultimately I decided to get a lawyer because I needed the guidance that they offer. I’d never been through the legal system before, I was already confused reading outdated and inaccurate information online, and my expectations of what would happen were misguided. Would I have been able to get through everything? Probably, but it would’ve been difficult, and it’s always easier to have somebody experienced going on a journey with you. I needed somebody knowledgable, who knew the steps, and more importantly, knew the pitfalls along the way. The advice I had gotten was that it’s probably wise to get a lawyer for anything larger than a parking ticket.

What’s important to remember about the lawyer is that a lawyer is not going to get you out of this. Everybody who gets into this situation begins to imagine some Perry Mason or 12 Angry Men scenario where a plucky lawyer, bent on breaking the system argues for hours upon hours and inspires a jury to not only vote you “Not Guilty”, but it inspires them to make something out of themselves.

Not going to happen.

Your DUI lawyer is mostly going to be your legal consultant more than trial lawyer (I get into what your DUI lawyer really does here). They’ll represent you in court, so you don’t have to go (I have no idea what the court that tried me looks like or where it is, even), and do what they can to defend you, but they’re not going to fight the system, they try to work it a bit.

Basically, you pay your retainer fee and your lawyer takes care ofdoes all of your appearances, paper work, negotiations, and various other legal affairs - filing paperwork and so on. Most likely they’ll have you plea out your case and negotiate the lightest possible sentence based on that.

Not quite a fight.

Finding A Lawyer

Like anybody else my age, I went directly to the internet! It’s overwhelming. Typing in “DUI Lawyer Cityname” into Google provides an avalanche of shady looking websites, all asking for a whole lot of personal information. Not quite what I wanted.

For whatever reason I decided to look at Yelp. Reading over the reviews and their styles, it all just felt fake to me. You also have to think - who in the world reviews their DUI lawyer on yelp? Most people want to hide their DUI experience, not tie it into their list ranking the city’s Pad Thai places. The reviews on Avvo seemed better, but who could I trust? I ended up reaching out to a few friends and seeing if they knew anybody as well as pulling a few off of Avvo. The best course of action for this - cast a wide net, get a lot of options.

Choosing A Lawyer

Another difficult decision, one with no “right” or “wrong” answer, one that you have no idea what would have happened otherwise. Again, the key is to make the smartest decision you can. Use your head and your gut. Your gut picks up on the vibe, and other things, it’s your animal senses, it handles trust - and if you don’t think you can trust somebody, don’t have them as the person keeping you out of jail.

It’s important to start calling lawyers - more than one - as soon as possible after your arrest. The consultations are always free, and they’ll give you a lot of valuable ground-level information right up front. Even if you decide not to go with a lawyer it’s good to make a few calls just to see what the basic steps and options are. Take meticulous notes - both on the legal stuff, and your feelings about the lawyer themself. You want to make sure the lawyer is knowledgable, and understands your case.

I can’t tell you what values to look for - but make sure the lawyer you choose fits you. I talked to slick, shady types, up-front-and-honest ones, fighters, rationalists, plenty. Whatever course of action you want to take, you can find a lawyer that does that.

The False Hope Of The Lawyer

There is a drawback, however. When calling lawyers, each and every one of their ears perked up when I mentioned that the cop had stopped me for “Weaving within my lane” (this reasoning, of course, would not be what he put on the police report, but more on that later). They all thought they had a chance at a dismissal for an illegal stop. This, in turn, got me more excited.

Yes, I’m going to beat this, I’m going to get off scott free! I’ve learned my lesson, but things will be ok!

No, not quite.

What’s important to remember is that these calls are sales calls. Yes, the lawyer is interested in defending you, but they’re mostly interested in the retainer that you’re going to pay them. If they can make you think that you have a sliver of a chance, they’re going to try their best to convince you that they can change that sliver into a chasm. Just how the world works.

When talking with the lawyer they’re going to tell you about false readings, errors in procedure, and lab tests, and all sorts of things to make you think you’ve got a shot at beating the case or getting a reduced charge. Most likely you don’t. Let me say that again, just to let it sink in a little bit. In most instances, your lawyer will not do anything to “beat” your case. Consider them your Sherpa for this Mount Everest.

Visiting The Lawyers

From the lawyers you’ve called, pick at least two and go visit them in person. I know in this digital age we want to do everything remotely, and it’s hard to look people in the eye at this point and talk about your arrest, but you’ll be glad you did. Again, visit at least two. Get a feeling for the environment they work in, how busy their office is, how nice their office is (you’re helping pay for it), how they treat their staff, everything.

Remember, these are sales visits. The lawyer is going to fit you into his schedule, meeting with you, answer all of your questions, and treat you like the few thousand bucks that you are. This experience often does not reflect what the actual process of interacting with the lawyer will be like (see: What Your DUI Lawyer Really Does).

Ask lots of questions, any information you have will help you in both being reassured that this is not the end of the world, and in your legal case, as well in your search for your lawyer. There are no dumb questions. Even if you ask a dumb question, you will see how the lawyer absorbs and reacts to it. Your gut will pick up on this information.

Ultimately, I went with a lawyer who seemed like he had some fight in him, who knew the tricks, who might pull something out to get this dismissed or lowered. That’s how I was feeling, I felt that this is a battle, I should have a fighter.

What should this cost?

This is another tricky question with no good answer (sensing a theme?). When searching I looked for advice on this matter and there’s no real consensus on this. I had one potential lawyer tell me $2,000 - $4,000 was a good range… but he was a lawyer. It’s not that terrible of a range to look in, however.

Know your budget, know what you can afford. But, in my opinion, the money should be secondary to how you feel about your lawyer, their reputation, track record, etc. If you need to you can always make more money. Most lawyers take credit cards, and so if you have space, you can float their services for a while.

What’s really important is to make clear what services are included and what services are not included in your lawyer’s services. Most of the time you will be paying your lawyer for taking care of court appearances, filing papers with the court, and working out the details of your plea bargain. Most lawyers do not include a trial in these services and will charge you extra on top of this retainer if you decide to take it to trial. Trials are expensive and eat up a lot of the lawyer’s time and a lawyer’s time, as your are well finding out, is not cheap. Yes, it’s a shitty system that’s designed to have you plead guilty even if you think that you may be able to get out of it based on a technicality, or testimony, or other manner. If you are the type that’s gearing up for a long extended fight, ask lots of questions about what is and isn’t covered in the retainer - who covers the cost of additional lab tests? Of consultants? If you take your case to trial it’s going to end up being exceptionally expensive. But if that’s what you want, and you can afford it, then by all means, go for it.

One thing that bothered me about my lawyer’s costs in the end is that there wasn’t anybody in his office who was notarized, so when it came time to plea out, I had to go find a notary and pay the fifteen bucks. Doesn’t seem like that, but I paid all that money, cut me a break on the stamp!

If you’re feeling wary about the cost of the lawyer here’s what helped me. Take the cost of the lawyer and divide it by 200 - $200/hour is about what a decent lawyer costs. As such your resulting number is the base numbers of hour of work you’re paying for. Could be more, could be less. If you require multiple visits, delay your trial a few times, have lots of filing, your retainer could end up as a bargain.

20/20 Hindsight

How do I feel about my lawyer and the whole experience? Well, like I said, it’s impossible to know the various outcomes and scenarios of what could have happened. I opted for a lawyer that seemed like he was a fighter, but all I had to go on was what I believed to have happened, what the phony friendly cop had told me, and the impressions from other lawyers. I didn’t go with the cheapest lawyer (felt that was just a bad way to go) but didn’t go with the most expensive lawyer (couldn’t afford it, and I spoke to some that gave me a quote well above the $4K mark). I negotiated with my lawyer for an amount and payment structure that seemed pretty decent, a smart decision at the time.

Knowing what I know now… I think I overpaid a bit. I think I could have saved myself a few hundred dollars. The representation I did get was good, I did get the minimums, but I have to wonder - without priors would this have been what would’ve happened if I had a cheaper lawyer? Maybe the same without any lawyer? No way to know, sadly. Still, given how difficult it was to get my lawyer sometimes, I wonder if I could’ve saved a little bit of money.

Oh well. It’s done. And I just have to deal with what’s happened and move forward.

Sensing a trend?