Do I need an attorney for a first DUI offense?
A first-offense DUI is usually a misdemeanor, and many courts hand down a standard sentence. If you were driving while intoxicated and there’s strong evidence backing that up—elevated blood alcohol content (BAC), witnesses stating you were driving erratically, failed field sobriety tests, etc.—some people simply choose to plead guilty. In these cases, an attorney may not be able to do much for you.
However, if there are any facts about your case that may increase your penalty, such as an extremely high BAC or an accident, or aspects that might decrease your penalties, such as procedural issues during your arrest, you may want to hire a lawyer.
If you’re not sure, an attorney can help recognize these facts and help you come up with a plan of action, including representing you at trial if necessary.
Deciding whether to plea-bargain
If there is some doubt about your case, you may want to plea bargain. With a plea bargain, you agree to plead guilty in exchange for lesser charges from the prosecution.
Some of the factors that can create doubt about the justification for your arrest include:
- Questionable field sobriety test results
- BAC below 0.08%
- Questions about the accuracy of the BAC
- Procedural problems with your arrest, like not reading you your Miranda rights In cases like these, an attorney may be able to get the charges thrown out or reduced.
Local DUI attorneys generally have a good idea of how the prosecutor works and what arguments are most likely to win a reduced plea.
In some states prosecutors can reduce the charges to something called a wet reckless. This is a reckless driving charge where alcohol played a factor. This charge usually leads to a lesser sentence than a DUI.
In states without the wet reckless charge, you may be able to plead down to a reckless driving charge.
You can win a plea bargain on your own, especially if the facts are strongly in your favor. However, if your case is less clear, an attorney may have a better chance of success.
Getting a reduced sentence
Where judges have discretion in handing down punishments, sentence bargaining may help you get a lesser sentence.
However, even if a judge has discretion they don’t always use it. Many see so many DUI cases they don’t have time to look carefully at each one, so they stick with a standard sentence for nearly all DUI first offenses.
If judges in your jurisdiction do regularly accept sentence bargains, an attorney is likely to know what legal facts are more likely to win a successful outcome.
When there are aggravating circumstances
If your case is more than just a misdemeanor DUI, having an attorney becomes more important. Some situations can turn even a first-time DUI into a felony:
- DUI with a child in the car
- Very high BAC
- Causing injuries
These and other factors are serious and can lead to a year or more in prison, among other penalties. An experienced DUI attorney may have a better chance of reducing your plea or sentence than you would on your own.
Going to trial
Representing yourself in plea or sentence bargaining is challenging but not impossible. However, if your case will be going to trial you want to consider getting a lawyer.
Trial procedures are more complicated than bargaining procedures, and you’ll be expected to follow all procedures correctly. Judges won’t give you any breaks for not knowing them.
Getting legal advice
Sometimes all you’re looking for is advice on whether you’re making the right decisions about your plea. Some attorneys will help you evaluate your case and advise you on how to proceed.
Unlike an initial consultation, which is often free, expect to pay for the time a lawyer spends evaluating your case.
Public defender or private attorney
If your income is low enough you may qualify to have a public defender represent you. In many jurisdictions public defenders handle a lot of DUIs. They’ll know how the system works and how to get you the best deal possible given the facts of your case.
If you qualify for a public defender, try to find out what reputation the public defender's office has in your jurisdiction. If it’s positive, the prosecutor may be more willing to negotiate a good deal.
If your income is too high to qualify for a public defender, you’ll need to hire a private attorney if you want representation. For the best chance of success, keep a few things in mind:
- An attorney who handles DUI cases regularly is more likely to get you a good outcome than a generalist.
- Make sure you find out up front how much your case is likely to cost, including factors that might increase the cost.
- If possible, talk to at least 2 or 3 lawyers to find one you are comfortable with.
An initial consultation is often free, so you can see if the attorney is a good fit for you. Some attorneys do charge for the initial consultation but will apply the fee to the cost of your case if you hire them.
In many cases you won’t need an attorney for a first offense DUI. But if your case isn’t straightforward, an attorney may be able to get a better outcome for your case than you could alone.