Process: The California Criminal Court
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The process by which a DUI case works its way to conclusion will vary, depending upon whether the case is a misdemeanor DUI, or a felony DUI. A DUI will be a felony where there is an accident causing injury to someone (other than the driver), or where it is the person's fourth (or more) offense within 10 years. The 10-year period is calculated from arrest date to arrest date.
The distinction between misdemeanor and felony relates primarily to the punishment that may be imposed upon conviction. Misdemeanors, by definition, are subject to a maximum jail term of one year in county jail. Felonies, on the other hand, subject a person to a term in state prison that is well in excess of one year, sometimes even a life-sentence.
It is important to note whether a case is a misdemeanor or a felony, as there are different procedures for each.
Misdemeanor DUI Cases
In these cases, a lawyer can appear on behalf of his or her client. This means that the defendant need not step foot in court, and is free to go about his or her normal life, leaving the attorney to go to court for them. This luxury is not available in a felony case.
The first appearance is called the arraignment. The arraignment is where the accused is formally advised of the charges against them and given police reports that justify the charges. While a case may be settled at the arraignment, it is usually not a good idea to do so. In most cases, it is only through investigation and the litigation of various motions that the case will improve. (Motions are merely a formal written request that the court order something, such as an order that certain items of evidence be suppressed.)
Following the arraignment, there are usually a series of pretrial conferences and hearings. These hearings present an opportunity to conduct additional investigation by way of informal discovery requests or formal discovery motions. In these requests and motions, the defense lawyer is asking the prosecutor to turn over additional items of evidence that are not in the initial arrest reports.
Other motions that can be heard at this point include motions to suppress evidence (alleging, for example, that the initial stop of the defendant was illegal, and therefore the evidence collected must be suppressed as the "fruit of a poisonous tree"), or a Pitchess motion, which is a special motion designed to obtain information about the arresting officers from their private personnel files.
Following those motions, there will be one of three outcomes: either the case will be dismissed, the case will be settled, or the accused will exercise his or her rights to a trial.
Trial in a DUI case is just like any other criminal case. It will include jury selection, opening statements, examination and cross-examination of all witnesses, closing arguments, and jury deliberations. In order to be convicted, the prosecutor must convince all 12 jurors (or the judge, in a court trial) in the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt. If not, the defendant is either acquitted or a mistrial declared.
Felony DUI Cases
Felony DUI cases are, by definition, more serious. They subject the accused to the possibility of lengthy prison sentences. The process is a bit different.
Unlike misdemeanor cases, where the lawyer can appear on behalf of the defendant, those accused of a felony DUI must be personally present at each and ever appearance. They cannot avail themselves of the same conveniences that a misdemeanor defendant can.
A felony case starts off with an arraignment, just like a misdemeanor DUI. However, the defendant then has the right to have a Preliminary Hearing, also called a Preliminary Examination. This is a significant procedural difference from misdemeanor cases, and presents certain opportunities for criminal defendants.
The Preliminary Hearing is designed to prevent criminal defendants from languishing in jail after being arrested on false charges. It is a safeguard, so that a neutral magistrate can determine whether thee is sufficient evidence to "hold the defendant to answer" for trial, or whether the case should be thrown out. The standard for a judge to allow a case to go forward is considerably lower than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but it is designed to protect those who stand accused.
Since criminal defendants (and their lawyers) are not allowed to take depositions of those involved in the case, the Preliminary Hearing may be the only opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, and pin down their testimony, before the case goes to a jury trial. Because of this, the Preliminary Hearing, which is available only in a felony case, provides an excellent opportunity to develop helpful information.
If the defendant is "held to answer" for trial following the Preliminary Hearing, the defense lawyer has an opportunity to challenge that order prior to trial, by way of a Penal Code 995 motion. This is yet another way in which misdemeanor and felony DUI charges are contested differently.
After the Preliminary Hearing, and any other pretrial motions, the felony DUI case then proceeds to trial, where the motorist must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be convicted. Where the felony DUI charges are grounded in prior DUI convictions, those convictions are generally not introduced in the current trial. Those issues are "bifurcated," since that information would be more prejudicial against the defendant, and would not be helpful in determining whether or not the accused motorist was guilty on the day in question. They would only serve to inflame the passions of the jurors.
Whether you stand accused of a misdemeanor DUI, or a felony DUI, an experienced DUI defense lawyer will know just how to shepherd your case properly to ensure that your interests are protected.
Contact the Law Offices of Shelley D. Dwyer by calling 650-367-8500 and schedule an appointment (usually available the same day), or fill out an online contact form.