The DUI Arraignment

The arraignment is where you enter a plea and arrange a few other details, including scheduling the next proceeding in your case. Here are the issues usually covered at an arraignment.

Note: For now we assume you are representing yourself—at least in these early stages of the proceedings. At this point, your main goal is to get the police report so you can evaluate your case before deciding what to do next. To do that you'll have to get through the arraignment, which you can do without a lawyer.


When you first appear and you don't have an attorney with you, the judge will ask if you are represented and if not whether you plan to hire a lawyer or apply for public defender services (available for DUI charges in most states). If you are represented, and the attorney isn't there, the arraignment will be continued to another date so your attorney can appear with you. If you aren't represented at the time you appear, and you want a public defender, the judge will either appoint one on the spot (to get you through the arraignment) or have you apply for one and come back later. In some states you aren't entitled to a public defender and in other states you can use the public defender but you may have to cough up some money if your income is above the eligibility level for free services. Unfortunately, it is the rare public defender's office that lets you sign up in advance. Usually you'll have to appear in court first.

You are also entitled at this phase to state that you want to represent yourself. The court will try to encourage you to get an attorney one way or the other, but if you stand firm the judge will approve your self-representation because you have a constitutional right to represent yourself. Of course there are always exceptions and some judges may continue your arraignment and tell you to reconsider your decision and encourage you to come back with an attorney. If so, don't be buffaloed. The judge can discourage you from representing yourself but he or she has no right to prevent it and will ultimately give in.

Administrative Hearing to Challenge DMV Suspension

In a DUI case, you will probably have to deal with the DMV as well as law enforcement agencies. When you are suspected of a DUI and were driving with over .08 BAC (which you were probably accused of doing unless it was a drug case), your state's DMV will likely suspend your license. To do this they first have to give you an opportunity for a hearing. You will usually find out about your right to a hearing on the back of the temporary license the police handed you when they suspended your regular license. You usually don't have much time to request the hearing, so you'll have to be vigilant (assuming your state uses this DMV suspension procedure).

You fight the suspension by attending a hearing by phone or in person. The hearing officer will allow you to testify, will have the officer on the phone (or in person) as well, and

if you can afford it, you can have your expert witness testify. The typical hearing will last between a half hour and one hour.

If you can convince the DMV that the police did not follow the proper procedures when they tested you (as required by your state's law) you can escape the suspension, but this is usually a hard sell unless you pay a lawyer and expert witness to do the convincing. Keep in mind that any suspension made by the DMV will be independent of any suspension made by the court if you plead guilty or are convicted after a jury trial. Sometimes the DMV suspension will last for six months or so and then the conviction will come along later and result in an additional six-month suspension.

Look on your state's DMV website for information about the DMV DUI procedures in your state.

The Complaint and Police Report

When your name is called you will know where to go since you've been observing the cases that came before you. The bailiff will hand you a copy of the formal charges against you and, in some states, the police report. In other states you won't get the police report until your arraignment is completed. While it will be helpful to skim the complaint so you know what charges you are facing, refrain from digging in to the police report if you also get it (which will be very tempting). You'll have plenty of time for that later. There is nothing in the report that will influence how you should handle the arraignment.

The Plea

You'll first be asked how you plead. Your choices are guilty, nolo contendre (no contest), or not guilty. Unless you are far from home and don't ever want to return to where you are, you should always plead not guilty at the arraignment. This is what the court expects so you needn't feel like a fool for pleading not guilty even if your blood alcohol content was off the chart and your driving resembled that of a ten-year-old out for his or her first spin.

Waiving Time

You will also be asked to waive time. This means you won't hold the court to the strict time deadline for holding the trial. At this point you don't really know what kind of a case you have, or long you would need to put together a defense, so it's generally advisable to waive time at the arraignment. Later on, if you want to bring the case to trial, you usually can withdraw the time waiver you made earlier. Welcome to the strange world of the criminal court.

Terms of Release

Usually you will already be released. If you have bailed out, the judge will likely continue the bail as originally set unless the prosecutor brings up some reason why it should be raised. For instance, if you are driving through Mississippi on your way to California where you live, and there is suspicion that you'll not come back or arrange to appear through an attorney once you reach your home turf, the bail might be increased. In this situation, there would not likely be an order for you to remain in the state as a condition of the bail (because the type of DUI we are discussing here is a misdemeanor). Rather, they would count on the bail to secure your return regardless of where you go. If you were released at the jail without bail, the judge will likely approve continued release on those terms, unless the prosecutor objects.

Date Set for the Case Settlement Conference

Finally, you will then be given a date for your next appearance, the purpose of which will be to see whether your case can be disposed of by a plea bargain of some sort or whether you are really going to trial. Different states have different names for this appearance, but it always serves the same function—to find out whether you want to plead guilty and if not, to determine what happens next.

After the Arraignment

In your arraignment you probably received another court appearance date for the purpose of deciding whether you plan plead guilty or go to trial. It would not at all be unusual at this appearance for you to say you plan to go to trial, even though you know that you'll probably be pleading guilty. That's because you can always plead guilty right up to and anytime during the trial. Of course if you've already arranged a plea bargain (or are able to arrange it at the conference) you can wind up the case then and there. But if you don't have a plea bargain that you realistically think is possible, then you would explain that you think you could obtain a favorable verdict at trial and want a trial date.

At this point, depending on the state, court and judge, the judge may become involved and push for a plea bargain (which the prosecutor would likely go for since he or she has to live with the judge day in and day out). Or, the judge may take a hands-off approach and simply schedule a day for the trial. You may be pressured to explain just why you think you would win at trial. If you have done a careful analysis of your case and have spotted several areas where you think the prosecution has a weak case, you may be tempted to spill the beans. Unfortunately if you do end up at trial, you'll have alerted the prosecutor to your strategies and your chances for success will have been diminished. All things considered, it's usually better to play your trial strategy as close to your vest as possible.

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