The History of Drunk Driving Charges in America
As recently as a generation ago the penalty for a drunk driving conviction was essentially a slap on the wrist unless the defendant had a history of DUIs or caused an accident while driving drunk. Those days are long gone. Over the last several decades both private advocacy groups and public agencies have waged a campaign against drunk driving across the United States. Their efforts have largely been successful.
Laws throughout the U.S. have been changed to provide for tougher penalties for even a first time driving under the influence, or DUI, conviction. If you have been charged with DUI in California you likely already know that you face harsh judicial and non-judicial penalties if you are convicted. For this reason, a strong defense is crucial. Although each DUI prosecution presents a unique set of facts and circumstances, there are some defense strategies that are commonly used to defend a DUI charge in California.
California DUI Conviction Penalties
Today, the court ordered penalties for a first-time DUI conviction in California may include:
- 48 hours of mandatory jail time (may be converted to work service)
- Three to five years of probation
- Completion of DUI school
- Loss of driving privileges for six months
- Installation of an ignition interlock device
- Payment of fines and costs that typically exceed $2,000
Along with the judicial penalties ordered by the court a defendant also faces a number of harsh non-judicial ramifications if convicted of DUI in California, including:
- Increased insurance rates for several years
- Disciplinary action if you hold a professional license
- Lost employment opportunities
- Interference with custody or visitation with minor children
The only way to avoid these penalties is to prevent a conviction. Preventing a conviction, in turn, requires a strong defense. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors frequently make it sound like a DUI charge cannot be defended, meaning that a conviction is imminent. Nothing is further from the truth. On the contrary, with an experienced California DUI attorney on your side you may stand a very good chance of avoiding a conviction.
The State’s Evidence
In any criminal prosecution the State of California relies on evidence collected by law enforcement personnel to prove the case and convict the defendant. A DUI case is no different. Typically, the State’s evidence will include any, or all, of the following:
- Arresting officer’s testimony regarding the reason for the stop
- In-dash video of the stop
- Officer’s testimony regarding the results of the field sobriety tests
- Physical evidence found in the vehicle such as open alcohol containers
- Breathalyzer test results
- Blood test results
- Urine test results
In the United States an accused is innocent until proven guilty. In practical terms what that means is that the State of California has the burden of proving your guilt. Your defense, therefore, often focuses on preventing the State from introducing evidence against you and/or discrediting evidence introduced by the State or witnesses for the State.
No two DUI stops are exactly the same. For this reason, only an experienced California DUI defense attorney can evaluate the specific facts and circumstances of your stop and arrest and provide you with detailed advice regarding your best defense strategy. There are, however, some common defense strategies employed in DUI cases, including:
- Challenging the stop – an officer is required to have a legal reason to stop you before a stop can be effectuated. A vague suspicion that you are doing something you shouldn’t be is not sufficient.Probable cause is required for a stop to be considered legal. Officers routinely testify that a driver was “weaving,” “speeding,” “changing lanes frequently” or exhibiting some other driving behavior that allegedly formed the basis of probable cause to believe the driver was intoxicated at the time. Under cross-examination, however, the officer may have to admit that those same driving behaviors could be the result of a distracted or drowsy driver.
- Challenging the FST results – once an officer gets past the preliminaries you may be asked to exit the vehicle and perform a series of field sobriety tests, or FSTs. Even when these tests are correctly administered under ideal circumstances they only provide a possible clue to intoxication. Performing poorly on the FSTs can also be caused by physical disability, medical conditions, or just plain nerves. Moreover, the tests are often administered incorrectly and the results are often slanted by the officer’s desire to proclaim the motorist intoxicated.
- Challenging the chemical test results – contrary to what people are led to believe, results of a chemical test are far from reliable. Results of a breath test can be off by as much as 50 percent when the machine is functioning properly and the test is administered correctly. If the machine has not been calibrated recently and/or the test operator has not been properly trained the results can be even less reliable.
- Questioning the chain of custody – evidence collected in a criminal investigation must be safely handled and stored to prevent loss or contamination. If the chain of custody has been broken the evidence cannot be admitted at trial.
- Discrediting the officer – an officer’s testimony is often relied on heavily by the State in a DUI prosecution. The average patrol officer will conduct hundreds of stops each month and arrest several motorists for DUI during the same time frame. By the time your case reaches trial the officer will likely not remember any of the details of your stop. A skilled defense attorney will capitalize on this by focusing on how unreliable the officer’s testimony is in light of the fact that he or she cannot remember important details about the stop and arrest.
- Rising alcohol level defense – when you ingest alcohol the alcohol absorbs into your blood. Depending on a number of factors that absorption can take anywhere from about 45 minutes to three hours. If you drank right before driving your blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, was still rising at the time you were operating your vehicle. Therefore, the results of the breath test you took some time later at the station could provide a BAC level that was much higher than it had been when you were actually driving the vehicle. This defense is referred to as the “rising alcohol level” defense.
More About California DUI Charges
For more information about DUI charges in San Diego and the state of California, the following related resources are available for your review:
- Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (NTHSA)
- The ABCs of BAC (NTHSA)
- How Breathalyzers Work (How Stuff Works)
- Defenses to a Drunk Driving Charge (ExpertLaw)
- DUI and DWI Defenses (NOLO)
If you have been arrested for a DUI in California it is essential that you consult with an experienced California DUI defense attorney as soon as possible to determine what defenses might be available to you.