The DUI trial
Successfully navigating your Washington State DUI prosecution requires a clear understanding of the DUI court process. In other words, knowing what to expect will greatly reduce the amount of stress you experience when fighting a DUI charge.
Although each court system in Washington differs slightly in how it handles the initial stages of a criminal prosecution, the basic outline below will help you understand the court process as a whole:
When you are arrested for a crime, you will have to go through several court hearings. Your first time in court is called an arraignment. Your next court date is called a preliminary hearing or status conference. You may also have court dates for motions or a trial.
This is your first time in court and it is where you are formally told about the charges against you. In a DUI case, you may already know what the charge is before you even step into the courtroom. However, there may be additional charges that you were not aware of, such as impaired driving violations or additional criminal charges filed by the prosecution after your DUI arrest.
Depending on the jurisdiction, you will either be sent a notice of hearing or you will need to look at your citation (about 1/3 of the way down) where it says Court Appearance Required for your court date and time. If you are not sure of the date or time, call the court clerk’s office (numbers are available on the Internet). The court you are in is listed at the top of the quote, e.g. citation marked “District Court” and the crime occurred in Snohomish County, you would do an Internet search for “Snohomish County Court.”
Arrive a few minutes early. Most courts will have a computer printout of all the people scheduled for court that day, called a docket. These prints are usually seen near courtrooms. There will be a courtroom number next to your name. This is where you should go. If you get confused or can’t find your courtroom, ask at the court clerk’s office – they are usually very helpful.
Once you get to the correct courtroom, be prepared to wait. Most courts will have either a video or a document that explains your rights when charged. If it’s paper, they’ll want you to sign your name – saying you understand your rights.
Eventually, you will be called before the judge. Don’t panic. Now is not your time to explain what happened – there will be plenty of time for that later. All the judge wants to know at the arraignment is whether you understand the charge(s) against you and whether you want to plead guilty or not guilty. It is.
Common sense would tell you that if you have done something wrong, you should go easy on the justice system by pleading guilty and the justice system will go easy on you by not sentencing you as harshly as if you had fought the charges. Unfortunately, the judicial system is not always based on common sense. In fact, you will most likely be punished worse if you plead guilty at the time of arraignment instead of fighting the charges. In other words, Plead NO GUILTY!
After you plead not guilty, the Court will ask you if you want a lawyer. The old cliché “He who pretends has a fool for a client” is very true. If you don’t understand court rules and the law regarding DUI (or any other crime), you don’t stand a chance against a well-trained prosecutor.
Lawyers come in two types: private and public defenders. You do not need to have a lawyer with you during the arraignment. If you plan to hire a private attorney, just tell the judge that and he or she will be happy – but will warn you not to wait too long to hire them. If you cannot afford an attorney of your choice, you may be eligible for a public defender. The court will have a series of questions for you to determine your eligibility based on your income, dependents, etc. The downside to a public defender is that you have no control over who gets assigned to your case. Even if you qualify and have a public defender represent you, you can always have a private attorney take over at any time. It’s very common for people with a public defender to hire a private attorney – so don’t worry, your public defender won’t be upset if you replace him with a private attorney – they may even be relieved that it means one less case for consideration.
After the judge discusses the matter with your attorney, the court will consider your release status. If you have a clean record, you will likely be released on a promise to return. If you have a criminal record, the judge may set bail or a cash bond to ensure you return.
The court will set a date when you will have to return for the preliminary hearing. If you cannot come on that date, be sure to tell the judge about your conflict so another date can be chosen. If a conflict arises later, contact your attorney immediately so he or she can file a motion to extend the court date.
You will leave court with a piece of paper telling you the date and time of your next court date. Don’t be surprised if it’s two to three months from the date of your charge. This may seem like a long time, but don’t wait – if you need to find a lawyer, start now, as it can take a long time to find the one you want and raise the money to hire one.
Once you have hired your attorney, that person will need to file a Notice to Appear, telling the court and the prosecutor’s office that they are representing you. They will also need time to obtain any police reports and other documents that the prosecution intends to use against you (collectively called Discovery). Once your attorney has all of the Discovery, they will need to sit down with you face-to-face and discuss your case. One of the strange rules in Washington State is CrRLJ 4.7, the rule that allows your attorney to obtain discovery in your case. Same rule actually prevents not to give you a copy of the discovery – even though this is your case! This rule is even stranger considering the fact that if you were to fire your attorney and represent yourself, the state would be REQUIRED to give you a copy of Discovery. However, there is nothing to prevent your attorney from giving you access to Discovery whenever you want – as often as you want; they just can’t send you home with a copy.
These hearings are held in court and before a judge. Their aim is to ensure that no case ‘slips through the cracks’ by making sure that the case is reviewed in a systematic way. During a preliminary trial, the judge wants to know the status of the case: do the parties (prosecutor or defense) want to plead guilty to something, do they want to set a time for a motion hearing, do they want to have a trial, or do they not know what they want and they just want more time?
These hearings are administrative in nature. This means that they are relatively under-stressed because nothing will happen at the pre-trial unless the defendant does. In most cases, the defendant does not have to say anything other than respond to the judge when the judge asks if the defendant agrees with what is happening, such as requesting a postponement or setting a motion hearing. You and your attorney will have discussed what will happen at the pretrial well before you get there.
Most criminal cases have several preliminary dates. There are many reasons why you may not want to settle your case during the first preliminary hearing: you may have legal issues that need to be resolved by a judge (during a motion hearing), your attorney may need more time , to negotiate with the prosecution, or you may simply not have decided how you want to proceed with your case.
If you ask the judge to continue your case, the issue of a speedy trial will come up. If you are out of custody, your case must be resolved within ninety days (sixty if you are in custody). When a defendant requests a stay, the judge will either not want that extra time to count toward the 90 days, or will ask for another 90 days — starting from the date of the stay request — before granting the stay request. Although this speedy trial rule is an important right, in practical terms it very rarely determines the outcome of a case. In other words, if your attorney thinks it’s a good idea to waive the speedy trial rule, giving the state more time to bring you to trial, then it’s probably in your best interest.
Hearings on request
Pleadings are written legal arguments why the evidence in your case (sometimes the entire case) should be thrown out. There are potentially hundreds of motions that can be filed in a criminal case. Your attorney will know which (if any) apply to your particular facts.
The motions serve two purposes: First, if you can hide evidence, you may have a better chance of winning if you go to trial. Second, motions are a great way to change the strength of your case, thereby increasing the likelihood that the prosecution will want to make a plea deal that you really want to accept.
A motion hearing looks like a trial: they are held in court and before a judge, there may be witnesses, both the defense and the prosecution will present arguments to the judge, and finally the judge will make a legal decision on the matter. Here the similarity with the trial ends. The burden of proof at a motion hearing is significantly less than at trial, and the judge is required to view the evidence at a motion hearing “in the light most favorable to the State.” These two elements combine to facilitate a motion hearing for the state rather than the defense. The reason behind this unfair advantage is actually good: the heart of our legal system is the trial by jury. If you win at a motion hearing, then you can bypass the court process entirely.
Trials are offered in two types: bench and jury. A trial is a process where the judge decides everything. A trial is one where six people (twelve in the case of a felony) decide what the facts are and the judge decides what the law is.
You can waive (waive) your right to a trial at any time, but if you do, you usually can’t get it back. If you’re ever asked to decide whether you want a jury trial or a jury trial, always choose a bench trial (since you can always change your mind), because if you choose a jury trial – that’s what you’re left with.
At trial, the prosecution is required to prove each of the elements of the crime beyond reasonable doubt. Your attorney will discuss the elements (what the state must prove in your case) with you. It is your job as the defendant to decide whether or not the state can prove each of these elements. Can any of the elements become unprovable if you win at a motion hearing?
The outcome of the trial is simple: you either win or you lose. If you win, go home – done. If you lose, then you will usually (though not always) get slightly more jail time and slightly more fines than if you had pleaded guilty. Is it worth the risk? That is for you and your attorney to decide.
Being able to mentally prepare for the types of court encounters you will encounter while fighting a DUI charge may not eliminate the stress you are experiencing, but it will reduce it to a manageable level.
Copyright (c) 2007 Cahoon Law Firm – All rights reserved.