criminal law: October 2007 Archives

October 26, 2007

When You Don't Need a Lawyer to Represent You in a DUI Case

The other day in court I saw a person--call him Frank--plead guilty to a first offense "driving under the influence" charge. He received the same standard sentence as the judge hands down in hundreds of other first offense DUI cases. A local pricey lawyer stood by Frank's side when he entered his plea.

From the outset it was clear that Frank would be pleading guilty to the DUI charge. A blood test had shown him to be driving with a blood alcohol content considerably in excess of the limit, which is .08. It's almost impossible to fight a blood test (or breath or urine tests for that matter), thanks to various California statutes that, in effect, make these test results conclusive of your guilt. This same lockstep approach to "over-the-limit" DUI cases can be found in most other states.

It turned out that Frank had paid the lawyer $3,000 for his services, which consisted of appearing for Frank at an arraignment, reviewing the police report, interviewing Frank, attending a status conference where he negotiated with the D.A., talking Frank into taking the deal, and standing at Frank's side while the judge handed down his standard sentence for a first offense DUI. All in all, the lawyer spent about 3 hours, at most, on the case -- none of it really necessary in a first offense DUI case.

Now as many of you know, I'm highly skeptical of the claim that you need a lawyer if you are headed for civil court (divorces, probate, contract disputes, personal injuries, you name it). But what about criminal cases--cases where you can go to jail or receive a substantial fine if you lose? That's a different question. But more specifically, what about DUI cases? How can you tell which category your DUI case fits in--a standard case you can handle yourself or an unusual case where you might benefit from representation?

Simple. Get a copy of Nolo's Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman and Sarah Bergman Barrett, represent yourself at the arraignment, and obtain a copy of the police report. Take the report to a lawyer versed in DUI defense, pay the lawyer a couple of hundred dollars for an independent consultation, and find out just what kind of case you have.

If it appears that there is something unusual about your case--perhaps you have one of those rare cases where you can defeat the "over-the-limit" charge--you can hire a lawyer to appear on your behalf or perhaps you can qualify for a public defender. Otherwise, from the time you are arrested till the time you plead guilty, DUI procedures are typically sufficiently straightforward to be handled without a lawyer, and you're unlikely to get off any more easily with a lawyer.

For more information on going to court for yourself, try reading  Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, by Attorneys Paul Bergman & Sara J. Berman-Barrett (Nolo).