The charge of driving under the influence – or DUI – in the state of California is a serious matter. Whether you have already been charged with this crime, or you expect to be charged in the near future, it is important that understand your rights and the potential consequences of these charges. For those convicted, a DUI can be a life changing event, so this is not a case that should be entered into lightly.
From the moment you are pulled over by the police to the time you have to appear in a courtroom (if it gets that far), you will likely have countless questions run through your head. The article below should help you get some of the answers you need as you go through this difficult process.
What Constitutes Drunk Driving in California?
The first question to be handled is what exactly counts as drunk driving in California. In the state of California, as is the case in most states throughout the country, the threshold for drunk driving is 0.08%. That means you are not allowed to operate a motor vehicle in California while your blood alcohol content is at or above 0.08%. If you are tested at that level at the time you are stopped (more on testing later), you will be considered guilty of DUI.
If you are under the age of 21, the laws pertaining to drunk driving are even more severe. California is what is known as a ‘zero-tolerance’ state, meaning it is not permissible to drive under the age of 21 with any alcohol in your system at all. If you are found to have alcohol in your blood while driving and you are under 21, you could face severe penalties. The severity of the punishment in this case will largely depend on the amount of alcohol found in your system – punishments for those coming it above 0.05% or 0.08% will face potentially greater consequences than those with less than 0.05%.
Another point to consider is the reduced blood alcohol level that is permitted for those who are driving commercially. If you are operating a commercial vehicle at the time you are stopped by the police, the law will find you guilty of DUI if your blood alcohol comes in at 0.04% or higher. This is half of the threshold required for a ‘regular’ DUI, so those driving commercially need to be even more careful to monitor their alcohol intake before getting behind the wheel.
If you are stopped for suspicion of driving under the influence, there will be a specific set of procedures that the officer should follow while investigating the situation. It is helpful to know what to expect going into this process so you can respond appropriately to the officer’s questions.
Generally, the first step in the process will be for the officer to perform a series of field sobriety tests. These are the tests that most people think of when they hear of someone being arrested on suspicion of DUI. While they will vary from officer to officer, some examples of commonly used field sobriety tests are ‘walking the line’, reciting the alphabet, standing on one leg, and more. These tests are not used to conclusively prove drunk driving – rather, they are used to establish probable cause for the officer to arrest you on suspicion of drunk driving. If your performance on these field sobriety tests leads the officer to the conclusion that you are over the legal limit of 0.08%, you will likely be arrested. Once arrested, you will be taken to the police station to be booked and undergo additional testing.
When is a Chemical Test Performed?
You will be subjected to a chemical test after you have been arrested and booked. While in custody, you will be asked to take either a breath test or a blood test to determine the exact level of alcohol in your blood stream. This is the information that will be used in court when determining the penalties in your case. If the results of a chemical test come back with a level of 0.08% or above, you will likely be formally charged with driving under the influence.
What Happens When I Go to Court?
Perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of this process is when you actually have to go to court on DUI charges. You probably don’t see yourself as a criminal, but that is how the state of California will see you – at least throughout this process. You are going to have to fight to prove your innocence, or at least work with the prosecution to secure a deal that will bring the case to a quick conclusion.
The first appearance you make in court is called an arraignment. It is at this time that you will need to enter a plea, and you will have three options for that plea – guilty, not guilty, or no contest. For the most part, guilty and no contest will have effectively the same outcome in terms of a DUI case. Prior to making a plea in front of a judge, you will want to work closely with your lawyer to determine the best course of action. The plea you make at the arraignment will set the course for the rest of the case, so it is important that you make the right decision.
Along with your plea, the arraignment is also the time when the prosecutor will present the basic evidence in the case such as police reports from the arrest and lab test results. Now that your attorney has this information as presented by the prosecution, he or she will be able to go to work on examining the evidence and determining if there are any reasonable defense strategies that can be used.
A pretrial hearing will follow some time after your arraignment, unless the case has been settled otherwise. If you are going to negotiate a settlement with the prosecutor, this is the time when they would be likely to take place. If not, the pretrial hearing will set the stage for an eventual trial which will decide your guilt or innocence.
What are the Potential Penalties for a First DUI Conviction in California?
In the event that you are found guilty of DUI, you are going to face some sort of penalties as a result of that conviction. While the penalties for a first offense are not going to be as severe as subsequent convictions (if there are any), they could still be life changing in one way or another. Also, not all DUI convictions are created equally, so there could be variance in the sentencing depending on the circumstances surrounding your case.
Most people who are convicted of DUI in the state of California for the first time will face between 4 days and 6 months in jail. Most of the time, no jail time will be served after the initial detainment following your arrest, as you will likely be credited with time served and not sentenced to additional time in jail. However, sentences can run up to 6 months in length in certain cases, such as when the offender is found to be well over the legal limit of 0.08%.
From a financial perspective, you will be looking at up to $1,000 in fines and penalties that may be imposed in order to settle your case. While that might not seem too serious, it is important to remember that those fines are simply to settle your case with the court – that does not include the cost of your defense, which could certainly run well beyond the $1,000 in fines and penalties that you may face.
Finally, you will likely have your license suspended for a period of time between 30 days and 10 months. It is actually the license suspension that can be the most serious punishment for most people, because it may affect your ability to get back and forth to work, to the grocery store, etcetera. While it is possible to petition for a permit that will allow you to drive back and forth the work, those will not always be granted. If you are left without the ability to drive legally for an extended period of time, that restriction could have major implications on your day to day life.
What are the Potential Penalties for a Second DUI Conviction?
It will come as no surprise that the penalties for a second DUI conviction will come along with significantly more serious penalties than those for a first offense. Driving under the influence convictions have a ‘look back’ period of ten years, meaning that any DUI that you have on your record within the last ten years will count toward punishment on a current charge. So, if you have a single DUI conviction to your name in the last ten years, you are going to be subject to second offense punishments if you are convicted again.
In terms of jail time, the range for a second conviction will run from 10 days up to one year. Those who are convicted of a second DUI are more likely to face jail time, depending on the circumstances. While jail time might not be likely if it has been nine years since the last conviction, it will be a very real possibility for someone who was charged and convicted of drunk driving less than a year ago.
The fines and penalties that are applicable for a second offense run up to $1,800, so they are almost double that of the first offense. Just as with the first offense, those fines say nothing about the costs of retaining defense throughout your case. Even more damaging, however, is the potential to lose your driver’s license for up to two years. The license suspension for a second offense tends to be significantly longer than the first offense, although it can be reduced to a year in some instances. Either way, you will be facing an extended period of time without the legal right to drive.
If you go on to have a third or fourth conviction for DUI, the penalties will continue to get more and more severe, with extended jail time more likely as you continue to move up the scale. You could face as much as 16 months in jail by the time you get to a fourth offense, and you could lose your license for a full four years. Remember, these punishment details are simply guidelines, and each case will have its own unique set of circumstances which help to determine the punishments that are put in place.
DUI Defenses in California
Once you are charged with DUI in the state of California, you are quickly going to want to determine exactly how you can defend yourself against those charges. As outlined above, the punishments for DUI are not something that you want to deal with, so a successful DUI defense would be a great benefit for your future. While it is possible to defend yourself in a DUI case, it is not generally advisable. Without the proper training and experience, you will likely stand little to no chance of being successful in a courtroom without the assistance of a lawyer.
So what kind of defenses can be successful against DUI charges in California? That will depend on the case. In some cases, it won’t really matter what defense is presented because the evidence clearly points at a guilty outcome. However, if there is some grey area in your case, your attorney may be able to argue innocence in a variety of ways. For example, there could have been mistakes made by the arresting officer while out in the field, or there could be problems with the way in which the chemical tests were conducted. Even if small mistakes were made during the process of arresting and booking you on a DUI charge, those mistakes may be enough to discredit the entire case.
It is critically important for you to know the relevant laws, and your rights, related to DUI charges in the state of California. Considering the fact that you could face punishments such as jail time, expensive fines, and the loss of your driver’s license, it is in your best interest to be well-prepared before heading into any DUI proceeding.