Should You Plead Guilty or No Contest to a DUI Charge?

Find out the consequences of pleading guilty, or "no contest", to a DUI/DWI charge.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

For anyone who's charged with driving under the influence (DUI), there are generally several ways of handling the case. Typically, it comes down to either making a plea deal with the prosecution or fighting the charge at trial. Here are some things to consider before deciding whether to plead guilty or no contest to a DUI charge.

Weighing Your Options Before Pleading to a DUI Charge

The consequences of a DUI conviction can be severe. So, it's always a good idea to talk to an experienced DUI lawyer (whether that's a private lawyer or a public defender) before making any decisions in your case. Every case is different, but here's some basic information about DUI pleas and trials.

DUI Plea Bargains

Most DUI and other criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining. It's usually the quickest and easiest way to handle a case. But making a decent plea deal can also be the most beneficial option for the defendant in many cases.

In lots of DUI cases, the evidence against the defendant is strong and there aren't any good defenses available. Under these circumstances, attempting to minimize the possible penalties through plea bargaining makes sense. (In some states, it's even possible to plea bargain for a lesser charge like reckless driving—sometimes called a "wet reckless" in the context of a DUI case.)

Many states also have special programs (like first-offender programs and DUI court) for eligible offenders. Generally, these programs allow participants to avoid some of the more harsh penalties (like jail time and license suspension) in exchange for participation in substance abuse treatment or other programs aimed at preventing future DUI violations. For certain people, these programs offer a good alternative for resolving a DUI charge.

Taking a DUI Charge to Trial

Going to trial on a DUI charge is a more involved process than plea bargaining. But it cases where there are good defenses available, it might be worth the extra effort (and money, assuming you hire a private DUI attorney). The risk of going to trial is that, if convicted, you could end up facing penalties that are more severe than those you would have gotten through plea bargaining.

Pleading to a DUI Charge in Court

The process for pleading guilty or no contest to a DUI charge is fairly simple. You'll appear in court with your attorney and tell the court your plea. Normally, you'll need to initial and sign a few forms acknowledging that you understand the rights you're giving up (such as the right to a jury trial) by pleading to the charge. In some courts, the judge goes over the forms with you in detail to ensure you understand the consequences of your plea.

Guilty and No Contest Pleas Lead to Criminal Convictions

Once you plead guilty or no contest, the judge will find you guilty of the charge. The judge finding you guilty means you'll have a criminal conviction on your record.

However, participation in certain programs previously discussed (like first-offender programs) will sometimes allow successful participants to avoid a criminal conviction.

Likely Consequences of a DUI Conviction

Most DUI convictions are misdemeanors and carry no more than a year in jail. The fines for a DUI normally ranger from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Convicted drivers also typically face license-related consequences such as suspension and having to use an ignition interlock device (IID) for a period of time.

However, if a DUI offense involves certain aggravating factors (like injuries or deaths) or the offender has prior DUI convictions, the current offense might be a felony and the consequences of a conviction can be much more severe.

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