Plea Bargain

Paying the Price: The Fine (and alternatives to paying the fine)

The minimum fine for a DUI in Los Angeles County is $390. Most likely if you plead out, and/or had no priors, this should be about what you were given in your sentencing.

So, naturally, when you get your documentation you receive a “Compliance of Fine Payment/Cashier Slip” detailing your fine and the various “court costs” associated with your case.

With court costs your $390 fine comes out to be around $2000.

Huh? How’d that happen?

When you think “court costs” you think that you’re being charged for the administrative system, much like the costs associated with getting your driver’s license or getting a permit to do construction. This is not the case.

Instead, the court costs are little fees that they tack on to every conviction to use it as a source of income. Some of this does go to cover Judge’s salaries and the infrastructure of the building, but most of it is used to make up budget shortfalls caused by the public electing to lower taxes (or voting in officials who lower taxes). Lower taxes, higher fines.

The biggest part of the fine is the “Penalty Assessment”. This is assessed on
all criminal fines, not just DUI fines. Get a speeding ticket - it’ll be on there.

Originally in the 1950s the rate of the Penalty Assessment was $1 for ever $20 of your fine. Mine was a little over $30 for every $10 of my penalty.

Additionally, there’s a “Penalty Assessment DNA” which funds DNA identification programs supposedly. Mine was around 1/3rd of my original penalty.

Believe me, how these rates are determined and what the money goes to is incredibly hard to research. For any rate I find online I do the math on my penalties and they don’t quite add up. Some are more, some are less. There’s not much you can do about this, but it would be nice to have some transparency during this part of the process. Alas, that’s not what they want.

The math of the form is difficult to add up - some numbers are listed, giving you a balance for them, but are supposedly included in the base fine - but that doesn’t mean they’re additional listings. If the fine that you agreed to from the court was $390, they’ll list the base fine as $320. Then you have items RESTDUI ($20 - no idea why it’s separate or what it’s for) and LABSVCS ($50 - believe this to be them charging you to use the station breathalyzer) claiming to be part of the base fine, but listed separately. It’s all designed to confuse you.

Trying to research this piece, I hit a lot of dead ends, and can’t find answers. I was charged $75 for PBHEALTH which states that it has a maximum of $100. What determines why mine was $75?

I asked my lawyer about it. He told me not to worry too much about it. He’d looked it over and it was in line with what the others looked like.

I guess you can worry too much about this sort of thing. Fighting any part of it would be an extreme uphill battle.

Alternate Options (and why they’re no good)

On your sentencing form you’ll see a part that says that you will pay a fine or “in default thereof serve ___ additional days in County jail, consecutive,
or perform ___ days of community labor”. Some people’s brain starts turning when they see this - with jails and prisons overcrowding you can often serve at 3:1 ratios (meaning you get credit for 3 days when you serve only 1), and sometimes even get 4:1.

Might it be worth it to give up a weekend or two to save a couple of grand? It seems kind of tempting.

Unfortunately, like most of the bright ideas you come up with to get out of things, it doesn’t work like that.

Serving jail time or doing community labor (which has it’s own difficulties, overcrowding means that you can’t serve that day instead of getting more credit for less) only counts against the base penalty of your fine. The court costs will still be there. In that case, a day in jail only counts for about $35.

Not worth it.

Additionally, some people try to get house arrest to either pay the fine, or count as their probation (more on that later), which isn’t ideal either - then you have to serve out the
full time, no ratios. So 15 days means 15 days (plus the fees for the monitoring bracelet add on, so it’s just a losing proposition).

How to Pay

For once, something in this whole process is simple. If you head down to the clerk’s office, you can pay with cash or a money order, which I expected, but, they’ll even take a personal check and some will even take a credit card.

If you have a check or money order, you can either give it to your lawyer or mail it to the county clerk’s office. If you want to pay cash or with a credit card, you have to go down there. Some places allow you to do this online, but, sadly, Los Angeles is not yet one of them. As with any civil service, expect to wait in line for a while to do a three minute procedure. Be sure to have your documents with you, as they need a lot of information to process your payment.

Payment can be done in a lump sum, or installments if you don’t have the resources. As long as the court is getting something, they’re willing to work with you.

It stings. It certainly does. But, once you’ve paid, you’re closer to getting this behind you.

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.

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