Always Get Legal Help With Serious Charges Such as DUIs
Even if you’ve had experience in civil court—in a divorce, name change, or a simple lawsuit—it often isn’t wise to go it entirely alone when charged with a serious criminal offense, such as drunk driving. It is true that lawyers are not the only people on earth who can learn to handle a relatively straightforward trial. But it is also true that a lawyer with lots of experience in traffic court is almost sure to be a lot further up the learning curve than you are. Even if you decide it doesn’t pay to retain a lawyer to represent you, paying for a couple of “lawyer coaching” sessions by someone who can help fine-tune your strategy can be an excellent idea.
Three Ways Lawyers Can Help
There are three basic ways a lawyer can help when you are charged with a traffic violation.
- Consult and Advise. The lawyer can listen to the details of your situation, analyze your legal position, and give you the pros and cons of several alternate courses of action. Ideally, the lawyer won’t just give you conclusions, but enough good information to allow you to make your own informed choices. This kind of coaching is the least expensive, because it involves only an office call—or sometimes even a phone call. Depending on where you live, a charge of more than $100 for a half-hour consultation or $200 for an hour might be excessive. Find out the fee before you go in.
- Negotiate. For more serious charges you may be able to use the lawyer’s skill and experience to help you negotiate with the prosecuting agency. Often a lawyer’s previous relationships with the prosecution and experience with plea bargaining can be helpful in limiting the price you might have to pay in terms of jail and penalties.
- Represent You in Court. If you face driving-under-the-influence charges or even an ordinary ticket that could result in your license being suspended, a lawyer may be able to present a more effective defense in court than you could muster on your own. Similarly, an experienced lawyer may help you put on a more effective presentation at a motor vehicles bureau license-suspension hearing. Inexperienced defendants are often (1) disorganized, with the result that their version of the facts is rarely clearly presented, and (2) they often focus the court’s attention on reams of insignificant details, forgetting to concentrate on the one or two key points that can influence the decision.
Finding a Lawyer
One of the best ways to find a good lawyer is through a referral from a family member or friend who has used one successfully, but that's not always possible - and sometimes you just don't want to involve others in your legal matters. You can always start your lawyer search on Nolo's lawyer directory. We have a directory of Traffic Ticket Lawyers, as well as Criminal Defense (for more serious driving offenses) and DUI/DWI Lawyers.
Four Things to Know Before Hiring a Lawyer to Fight Your Ticket
People are most scared right after they receive a serious ticket. Knowing this, some lawyers immediately ask for as much as a $5,000 retainer to be paid in advance in a serious case like drunk driving. Months later, they often advise their client to plead guilty—a result the client could have achieved on his or her own at no cost. To prevent this from happening to you, follow these rules:
- Never hire a lawyer in a hurry. Nothing serious will happen in your case for at least a week or two after you are cited (and by posting bail or pleading not guilty you can further slow things down), so take your time.
- Know the Charges. Make sure you know what you are charged with and have followed the techniques set forth in this book to analyze your chances of winning in court.
- Get an experienced attorney. Make sure you hire one of the relatively few lawyers who have lots of experience in traffic court.
- Don’t pay or agree to pay a big fee. Instead, pay the lawyer a small amount to help you thoroughly evaluate your case. Then, much later, armed with all the facts, decide if you want to pay more to hire the lawyer to represent you in court or represent yourself.
- Local is best. It’s usually best to hire a lawyer who routinely works in the court where your case will be handled. That’s because a local lawyer will know the idiosyncrasies of the judges and prosecutors who will handle your case. Just being able to chat with these folks on a first-name basis can be a huge help.
- Participate in your defense. Some lawyers are pleased to explain all the legal aspects of your case and involve you in making good strategic decisions. Others prefer an “I’m the expert, you’re the novice” approach, under which they expect you to listen and follow their advice. Especially if you are handling some or all of your own case, this second approach clearly won’t work, meaning you’ll need to find someone else.
- Beware of referral panels of local bar associations. Lawyers listed by referral panels are not screened. While you could get an excellent lawyer this way, you may well end up paying to educate a lawyer who doesn’t know as much as you’ll learn in this book.
- Beware of reduced fee legal plans. Some low-end prepaid legal plans purport to give members legal services at a reduced cost. There are two problems with this. First, you have to go to a lawyer on the plan’s local panel who may know little about traffic court. Second, the fee discount is often an illusion. Often, with a couple of phone calls you could negotiate the same fee with a real expert. The worst prepaid legal services plans provide for a free half-hour consultation with a lawyer, but little more. After that one meeting, you pay the lawyer by the hour, either at a standard or “reduced” fee. Since the plan reimburses the lawyer almost nothing for your consultation, the lawyer is highly motivated to talk you into buying expensive services you may not need.
Group Legal Practices and Prepaid Legal Services
A growing number of people join prepaid legal plans, which typically charge between $80 and $250 per year. Many groups, including unions, employers, alumni associations, and consumer action groups, are offering plans to their members under which they can get legal assistance for rates that are substantially lower than most private practitioners. Some of these plans are good, some mediocre, and a few are worthless. When it comes to traffic court cases, your first step is to see whether your plan provides coverage for your type of violation or one or more free consultations for any legal problem. Then, if you are eligible for help, you should be sure you are referred to an attorney with real expertise in handling traffic or criminal cases.
If you cannot afford to hire an attorney and you face the possibility of jail time, you have the right to request help from a court-appointed attorney. Since most vehicle code violations do not result in jail time, you are not likely to get a court-appointed attorney unless you face reckless driving, drunken driving, or other very serious charges, which are not covered in this book.
The legal determination of whether or not you can afford a lawyer depends upon the requirements specified by the particular state or county. A judge may appoint a public defender or private lawyer to represent you under the following circumstances:
- You have a relatively low-paying job or are unemployed.
- Your family is living on a tight budget.
- You do not have a savings account large enough to pay a lawyer.
Firing Your Lawyer
You have the right to fire your lawyer if you decide you have chosen the wrong one. You have the right to do this at any time—whether or not your bill is fully paid. It is best to do this in writing. If you fax or email your letter, follow up with an original copy and keep one copy for yourself. No need to say more than, “I no longer wish you to represent me.”