Your first court appearance is called an arraignment. In a DWI case, when you appear before a judge for your arraignment, s/he will ask if you have a lawyer. The judge will want you to have a lawyer because a first-time DWI offense in New York can result in probation or even jail. (Your second offense in ten years is a felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 days in jail.)
If you don't have a lawyer, the judge should enter a preliminary plea of not guilty on your behalf. S/he will then seize your license. An experienced attorney can help you keep some driving privileges during the time your case is pending by preparing a hardship application. I say "experienced," because I have seen many attorneys mess these hardship applications up, leaving their clients with no way to get to work!
The judge will then set another court date and tell you to return with a lawyer.
Your second court appearance: bring a lawyer!
At your second court appearance you should have an attorney. In preparation for this second appearance, your lawyer should prepare:
1) Discovery Demand. This is a 5-10 page document asking a lot of questions of the prosecutor (also called the District Attorney). Getting a response to your discovery demand is how your lawyer makes a preliminary assessment of the strength of the prosecution's case.
2) a Hardship Application. If you didn't have an attorney at your first appearance, your attorney should try to get you some driving privileges by making a hardship application at your second appearance.
After your attorney gets a discovery response, s/he will probably contact the prosecutor to discuss a plea offer. This is a very good idea, since you are often working against a clock. The more time you have to negotiate, the better.
Plea Offers: should I take the deal?
After your attorney gets a discovery response from the prosecution, s/he can tell you how strong the case against you appears. When thinking about a plea offer, you need to consider a number of questions; for example, is your DWI charge a felony or misdemeanor? How much of a reduction is the prosecution offering? What could happen to you if you don't take the deal? You need to speak with your lawyer, evaluate your chances of success at trial, and make an informed decision. You also need to consider the impact on your license. The DMV has new rules that can make getting a license with multiple DWI's difficult.
How to navigate the legal maze: hire an attorney who knows the DWI laws of NYS.
Whomever you retain to represent you, make sure they handle DWI cases regularly, and ask how often they appear in a particular court- sometimes it makes a difference!
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