What Are the Options for Settling My
California DUI or Drunk Driving Case?
The answer will depend upon many factors, and will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and court to court. Local practices have a lot to do with how DUI arrests are processed and settled. That is why it is so important to talk to a lawyer that concentrates on DUI defense.
Plea-bargaining refers to the process whereby a criminal case is settled for a reduced charge, or a reduced punishment, to avoid a trial and the possibility of a greater punishment. It is not unique to drunk driving, DUI, or DWI cases. In any criminal case, where the defendant exercises his or her constitutional right to have a trial, and the defendant loses, the sentence imposed is up to the judge (or, in some states, the jury). Plea-bargaining is an opportunity for the accused to control his or her own destiny, and agree to plead guilty to a particular charge, in exchange for a negotiated sentence. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, as the saying goes, and what a judge (or jury) will do with a particular conviction is certainly the devil you don’t know. This is especially true in DUI, DWI, or drunk driving cases that are garner media scrutiny, or the attention of one of the many groups that are publicly against drunk driving.
There are principally two reasons why a criminal case will settle on favorable terms: either problems of proof in the prosecution’s case which make it less likely that the prosecutor will win, or factors about the defendant that justify a better deal.
In drunk driving, DWI, or DUI cases, it is critical to find something wrong with the prosecutor’s case to force a better deal. Factors relating to the accused usually only arise in a negative context. That is, if the defendant has an extensive criminal history, additional punishment is heaped upon them, but if the defendant has an excellent driving record, and has never been in trouble before, it does them little good. It is frequently the case in a drunk driving prosecution that the accused has no prior criminal record, comes from a good background, is active in their community in a positive way, and is generally a fine person. Prosecutors, as a rule, care little about these things.
Conversely, prosecutors do care about the possibility of losing their case entirely. That is why it is important to select a DUI lawyer that has a demonstrated track record of success in trial work. It is by virtue of going to trial in an appropriate case that a drunk driving attorney demonstrates to his or her adversaries that they are not afraid of trial, that they are willing advocates for their cause. It is by going to trial in some cases that successful DUI lawyers are able to secure more favorable plea-bargains in others.
So, assuming that some kind of weakness can be effectively demonstrated to the prosecutor, what kinds of deals can be had? These will be discussed, in turn, from most severe to least severe.
There are some cases where a plea to a DUI charge is an acceptable, even a desirable, resolution. Perhaps the case is one where one or more punishment enhancements are alleged. (These enhancements include driving above certain speeds while DUI, driving drunk with children in the car, DWI where the BAC is .20 or higher, traffic accidents, refusing to take the chemical test following a drunk driving arrest, etc.) Perhaps the case is one where enhancements haven’t been alleged, but this is only through prosecutorial oversight, and additional scrutiny will only result in the possibility of additional punishment.
In general, a DUI plea following a DUI arrest at an early stage is appropriate only where the defendant could get hurt worse, possibly much worse, by going forward to a trial. It is an unusual situation, but it does happen where pleading guilty to drunk driving is an excellent result to a DUI or DWI case.
In some states, such as California, the next level of plea-bargaining down from a DUI arrest is to a charge of reckless driving. Wet-Reckless refers to an alcohol-related reckless driving, or a plea bargain to a reckless driving that is specifically authorized as a reduction from a DUI charge. Dry-reckless refers to reckless driving that is not related to alcohol. A plea to a charge of dry-reckless carries several advantages over the wet-reckless charge.
Chief among these is that a wet-reckless is a “priorable” charge, and a dry-reckless is not. Where someone is arrested for a drunk driving offense within seven years of a wet-reckless offense, the drunk driving charge will be prosecuted as a second-offense DUI. A dry-reckless is not priorable. If a DUI charge is pled down to a dry-reckless, and the person is arrested for DUI within seven years, that second arrest can only be prosecuted as a first-offense DUI.
Take note that these references to wet-reckless and dry-reckless are really just shorthand references. Technically, there is no such thing as a wet-reckless; a conviction for what people call wet-reckless goes on someone’s record as reckless driving.
However, a wet-reckless conviction will be treated just like a DUI by most insurance carriers, and will certainly be priorable in the event of a DUI arrest within seven years. Because of this, extreme caution is suggested before going forward with a plea to a wet-reckless following an initial charge of DUI. It is strongly recommended that you seek counsel from a lawyer that concentrates his or her practice on DUI defense.
Because of the similarities between a wet-reckless offense and a first-offense DUI, it is an excellent result for someone charged with a second-offense DUI or a third-offense DUI. However, consultation with a qualified DUI defense lawyer is advisable before agreeing to any plea.
The charge of exhibition of speed relates to things like chirping one’s tires, peeling out of a parking lot. It is not priorable for purposes of DUI, is not alcohol related, and usually involves a fine only.
Notwithstanding its name, a plea to an exhibition of speed need not involve a car going fast at all. This charge may be appropriate (and desirable) in any DUI case, including where a vehicle is not moving at all, such as where a car pulls into a roadblock or sobriety checkpoint, and the driver gives a borderline alcohol test.
Traffic school is not allowed for a charge of exhibition of speed, whether or not the charge is a reduction from a DUI.
In a DUI case where it can be demonstrated to the prosecutor that there are significant problems of proof, so that a DUI conviction is unlikely, it is possible to plea-bargain a drunk driving case to one or more traffic infractions. These traffic infractions are usually innocuous, such as making an unsafe lane change, or speeding. Traffic school is an option for traffic infractions, so the end result is that the individual charged with DUI and is allowed to plead to a traffic infraction will end up with nothing on his or her driving record.
In an appropriate case, a prosecutor may offer a “pair of movers.” This refers to a requirement plead guilty to two traffic infractions, so that they are allowed to go to traffic school on one, and still have some consequence on their record. Even though pleading to a pair of movers is harsher than pleading to just one, either is an excellent result when compared with the harsh punishment and collateral consequences of a DUI or related drunk driving conviction.
Settlement of your DUI case is a complicated matter, and best accomplished by a drunk driving defense lawyer who knows how to effectively demonstrate the weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case. Awareness of how the case is proved, where to probe for problems, what types of sentence enhancements may be charged, local customs, and sentencing alternatives are available are essential. As a consumer of legal services, ask questions of your lawyer to make sure that you understand each of your alternatives, and the short- and long-term ramifications of any.