When Do You Need a Lawyer for a DUI/DWI Charge?

Deciding whether to retain an attorney, go with the public defender, or represent yourself in a DUI case.

Driving under the influence is considered a crime in every state. So, DUI charges are handled in criminal court. You have a right to represent yourself in criminal court. But most defendants either hire a private lawyer or are represented by a public defender appointed by the court.

This article goes through some of the factors you might want to consider before deciding what kind of legal representation is best for you.

Getting a Lawyer's Opinion About Your Case

It’s difficult for someone with no legal experience or training to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a DUI case. DUI law is complicated and constantly changing, and the facts of every case are unique. So, getting the opinion of an experienced DUI lawyer can be valuable.

Most DUI lawyers give prospective clients a free consultation. But even if you have to pay a small fee, it's likely money well spent. Bring your police report and any other case documents you have to the consultation to make the best use of your time. It might also help to bring a list of questions you want to get answered.

You don’t have to hire an attorney you consult with. But meeting face-to-face is a good way to gauge whether things could work out with an attorney you’re thinking of hiring.

Cases Where Hiring an Attorney Might Not Be Worth It

Prosecutors usually have a standard first-offense plea offer. In other words, they offer everyone with a standard first DUI the same plea deal—which is typically at the lower end of the allowable first-DUI sentence. Generally, an offense is considered a “standard first DUI” if the offender has no prior DUI convictions and the offense didn’t involve any aggravating factors such as accidents, injuries, or a particularly high blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

In theory, the standard offer is the same regardless of whether the defendant is represented by a private attorney, public defender, or no attorney at all. So, it would seem that hiring an attorney in a standard first DUI case might not be worth it. This conclusion certainly holds true in some cases. However, in practice, the standard offer is frequently just a starting point.

Experienced DUI attorneys can often whittle down the standard offer by pointing out weaknesses in the prosecution’s case or bringing mitigating factors to the prosecutor’s attention. An attorney’s familiarity with local practices, the district attorney, and the judge can also help with these types of negotiations.

Accepting a standard offer might also be unadvisable in cases where the defendant has viable defenses. However, an unrepresented defendant is unlikely to know whether there are any such defenses. So, prior to accepting a plea deal, it’s a good idea to at least get a lawyer’s opinion.

Public Defenders

Generally, all criminal defendants have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford to hire your own lawyer, the court will appoint one for you. Appointed attorneys are normally from a public defender’s office.

Public defenders handle a large number of criminal cases, including lots of DUIs. So, most public defenders are quite familiar with DUI law and defenses. Public defenders are generally well acquainted with the district attorneys and judges and know their tendencies—knowledge that can be beneficial for plea bargaining. Public defenders also tend to have good trial skills because they take a lot of cases to trial.

However, being represented by a public defender has its downsides. Public defenders have large caseloads. So, some defendants feel like they and their case don’t get enough attention. And you don’t get to choose your public defender—you get who you get. Public defender representation is also limited to criminal court. A DUI arrest normally leads to two separate proceedings: “administrative per se” proceedings with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and a criminal court case. Generally, defendants who have a public defender will have to deal with the DMV proceedings on their own.

(Read more about being represented by a public defender.)

Private Lawyers

When you hire a private DUI lawyer, it’s typically to represent you in DMV proceedings and criminal court. Having the same attorney work on both aspects of your case can lead to better outcomes, including a shorter license-suspension period.

Most defendants see the price as the major drawback with private lawyers. Hiring a private DUI lawyer will generally cost you between $1,000 and $5,000. If your case goes to trial, it can be even more expensive. (And there are cases where spending the money for a private lawyer won’t get you a more favorable outcome than had you gone with the public defender.)

However, hiring a private DUI attorney (assuming you can afford one) can be well worth it. Of course, when you’re retaining an attorney, you get to decide who that attorney will be. Attorneys who specialize in DUI cases often have an in-depth understanding of DUI law and defenses that other attorneys don’t have. In some cases, this expertise can lead to more satisfactory results—perhaps, a better plea bargain or dismissal of the charges altogether.

Having a private lawyer can also minimize the time you have to spend in court. In some areas, public defender clients must personally appear for all court dates. With private counsel, on the other hand, you usually won’t have to be present for routine court appearances. For many people, especially busy professionals, not having to miss work to come to court is a significant perk.

Another benefit of hiring an attorney is you’ll typically get more one-on-time than you would with a public lawyer. Most people feel more comfortable with their case when they get all their questions answered and concerns addressed.

You Need an Attorney to Go to Trial

Though you’re entitled to represent yourself in a DUI trial, it’s almost never a good plan. The learning curve for trial practice is steep and usually comes only with considerable experience. A lack of legal knowledge and trial skills will put you at a severe disadvantage in court. And judges typically have little patience for self-represented defendants who don’t know the rules of court. The bottom line is you don’t want to try a DUI case on your own—if you’re going to trial, you should have an attorney.

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