DUI Trial: Court, Attorneys, Procedure
A criminal conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can mean harsh criminal penalties, including jail time. To be convicted of a crime, the defendant has to plead guilty or be found guilty in a jury trial. Many minor misdemeanor offenses are resolved before ever going to trial. Some criminal charges are dismissed or reduced through negotiations between the district attorney and the criminal defense attorney. In a plea bargain, the defendant pleads guilty or no contest through a plea deal.
A prosecutor may also drop criminal charges after the defendant wins pretrial motions to dismiss evidence, leaving the prosecutor without a strong case. However, if the case is not resolved, it may go to trial before a judge and jury. Most people are only familiar with criminal trials through legal dramas or movies. A standard drunk driving trial can be complicated and confusing for a first-time defendant. Understanding the DUI trial process can help you know what to expect if your case goes to trial.
In any criminal trial, a defendant has the right for the case to be decided by a jury of their peers. Most defendants choose a jury trial instead of a bench trial with a judge. The first step to a jury trial is to select the jurors. The jury selection process may take anywhere from a few hours to more than a day. Jurors are selected from an available pool who show up for jury duty. During the “voir dire" process, the lawyers ask jurors a number of questions to determine who may be the best fit for the case.
After the jury is selected, the opening statements are made by the counsel for the defense and by the prosecution. The prosecutor has the burden of proof and generally presents their opening statement first. The district attorney will provide a preview of the case, to describe the charges, a summary of the facts and evidence, and explain what the D.A. expects to prove. The defense lawyer presents next, presenting the defendant's side of the case.
The prosecutor and defendant have the opportunity to introduce evidence into the court record. Evidence in a DUI trial may include the police officer's arrest report, police camera footage, evidence found in the vehicle, and test results from a breath test or blood alcohol test.
The prosecution may start by calling witnesses to the stand to talk about what they know regarding the case. Witnesses in an impaired driving trial may include the police officer who made the traffic stop or individuals who witnessed the driver drinking before getting into the car to drive away.
Expert witnesses may be called to give their professional opinion of the evidence presented. After a prosecution witness testifies, the defense attorney can cross-examine the witnesses, to point out flaws or inconsistencies in the testimony or create doubt in the minds of the jurors.
After the prosecution presents its case, the defense may call its own witnesses. In some cases, the defendant may take the stand in his or her own defense. However, the defendant is not required to act as a witness. The defendant may also use expert witnesses to question the reliability of chemical testing procedures or the field sobriety tests. The prosecution will have the ability to cross-examine any defense witnesses.
A trial concludes by allowing both the defense and the prosecution to make a closing statement. These statements generally serve as a way to make a final impression on a jury. Closing statements may also allow an attorney to attempt to answer any questions that they believe that jurors may be asking themselves.
Before the jury goes to make a decision, the judge will provide the jury instructions to follow. Jury instructions clearly lay out the burden of proof and the elements of the offense. In a criminal case, there is a high burden of proof. The prosecutor must prove all elements of the offense “beyond a reasonable doubt." If there is any doubt that the defendant did not meet each element of the offense, then the defendant should be found not guilty.
Generally, the jurors will need to come to a unanimous decision for a defendant to be found guilty. If jurors have any questions about the case or need any clarification during deliberation, they can ask the judge questions, review the court record, or get a clarification on the jury instructions.
Jury Deliberation & Verdict
The final part of the DUI trial process is for the jury to come to a unanimous verdict based on the evidence. Jury deliberations can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, depending on the individual case. Deliberations may also take longer if certain jurors are deadlocked and cannot agree on the outcome.
At the end of deliberations, the jury will either find the defendant guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found not guilty, the defendant will be acquitted and is free to go home. If the defendant is found guilty, they will be convicted and the judge will continue to sentencing. If a jury is deadlocked with no hope of coming to an agreement, the judge may declare a mistrial. In some cases, the defendant may have to stand trial all over again, but it is also possible that the case is dropped entirely.
Even after the jury gives a verdict or the judge sentences the defendant, the case may not be over. The party that lost the case can file an appeal. Filing an appeal may not be the best option in your case if there is a low chance of success. An appeal can be expensive and there is a high burden to getting the lower court's decision reversed. There may be limited grounds for an appeal. Talk to your attorney to determine if filing an appeal is the right decision in your case.
Get Legal Help From An Experienced Drunk Driving Attorney Today
A DUI trial can be a stressful experience. There are strict court rules and legal terms that may make you feel like you're not sure what is going on or how your trial seems to be going. It is important to talk to your criminal defense attorney before the trial and throughout the process. If you have questions about a criminal trial after an arrest for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, contact a drunk driving attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.