Protip: Check and Double Check

Today was an interesting day.

Went down to the courthouse to pay my fine. My deadline is coming up and I wanted to get it out of the way. Most of my time was spent arguing how to do it - should I drive there and park or should I take the train and not worry about parking? How long is this going to take? Should I go early or wait till after the lunch rush?

Most of that wasn't the issue (I walked right up to one of the clerks)

However - I came to find that not all of my paperwork had been filed. The clerk informed me that neither my DMV certificate nor my MADD certificate had been filed. I was shocked! I had taken care of these things more than 9 months ago!

I called my lawyer's office - my lawyer was no longer part of the firm. I explained to them what was going on and within ten minutes they had everything sorted out and a person to go down to the courthouse tomorrow or Monday to file everything.

A few lessons learned:

  1. Don't wait - The longer you wait, the more chances that something will change, something will go wrong, some mistake will be made. The sooner you take care of stuff, the sooner you're not worrying about it, and the more time you have to correct things if they go wrong.

  2. Check and Double Check - Last Spring I biked over to my lawyer's office (I was on full suspension) and turned in my documents. I assumed that he would turn them in to the court in the next few days or so. No real worry. But he hadn't. Either he was waiting for me to drop off the check to pay my fine, or left the firm shortly thereafter (No idea when he left). But my documents had not been filed. It was a mistake to assume that they were.

This is a tough process, I know. And it's no fun, and it's a lot of hassle. But being early, and thorough will save you a lot of headache. If I had gone in at the last moment, I could've had a longer probation, more fines, or worse.

Get it done early, and double check.

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.

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.
There 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:

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 Search For A Lawyer: How to find them and what should it 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?