Stages of a DUI Case

Drinking can be a fun and social activity, but as soon as you get behind the wheel of a car, you can turn a night of enjoyment into a life of regret.

This guide will outline the entire process of a DUI case that you'll have to endure—from arrest to the conclusion of your trial—should you make the mistake of getting behind the wheel after drinking.

NOTE: DUI and DWI often refer to the same type of criminal offense in most states, and will be used interchangeably throughout this guide.

DUI Arrest

In every state, anyone over the age of 21 years old with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08% or more, will be charged with a DUI.

If you're under 21 years old, any amount of alcohol found in your system will result in a DWI charge.

It doesn't matter if you feel sober enough to drive, or if you only had to travel a mile to get home. Your BAC determines whether or not you are legally allowed to be on the road.

There are a couple different reasons for why a police officer can arrest you for DUI. In some cases, a breathalyzer test is not even required.

Driving Erratically

If a police officer sees you driving in a reckless manner, it may lead them to suspect that you're under the influence.

The officer can then pull you over and administer a Breathalyzer test in order to determine your sobriety. If your BAC reads over the legal limit, the officer's suspicions have been confirmed and you will be charged with DWI.

Probable Cause

DUI arrests made on the basis of probable cause don't necessarily require the use of a Breathalyzer. If the police officer believes that you have been or are about to be driving under the influence, they can arrest you.

Probable cause situations that might lead to a DUI include:

  • Empty beer bottles on the floor of your car.
  • A strong smell of alcohol (or other illegal substances) coming from your vehicle.
  • Slurred speech and questionable movements.

Traffic Stop

Traffic stops that lead to DUI arrests are fairly common. For example, a police officer might initially pull you over for running a stop sign, driving with a broken tail light, or having expired registration.

However, if they suspect you're intoxicated (e.g. smell alcohol coming from your car or you do not look sober), they can administer a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test. In most cases, courts will not argue with the officer's decision to detain you for longer than a routine traffic stop, especially if it resulted in a DWI arrest.

Booking & Release from Custody

Once you've been arrested, the police officer will take you to their station to begin processing your charges and information. If you are able to make bail, you'll most likely be released in a timely manner.


When you arrive at the police station the law enforcement officers will gather personal information from you. This process includes:

  • Recording your personal information, including:
    • Name.
    • Date of birth.
    • Physical characteristics.
  • Gathering details about the DUI charges that are being filed against you.
  • Looking into your criminal record at past offenses you may have committed.
  • Taking your fingerprints and photo, which are to be permanently logged into a central database.

Then, you will be searched and your personal belongings will be confiscated. You'll be placed in a holding cell until you are able to post bail or are let out on your own recognizance.

Release from Custody

After the booking process is over, you'll have the possibility of earning your release from police custody until your appointed court date.

If a bail amount is set, then you will have to pay the full amount before your release. The amount of bail you'll be required to pay is usually based on:

  • Your past criminal and DUI history.
  • The seriousness of your DWI offense (especially if other people got hurt).
  • Your ties to family, the community, and your job (i.e. if you'd try to flee).

If you can't afford to pay the set bail amount, you or your loved ones have the option of going through a bail bond agency. These agencies typically require you to pay a small percentage of the bail up front and will promise to pay the court the remaining amount if you miss your court date. Bail bond agencies might also require additional collateral (e.g. your house, car, land) in case you fail to appear at your court date.

If the court determines that you are eligible to be released on your own recognizance, then you will not be required to pay bail. This becomes a possibility if you have a clean criminal record, did not inflict too much damage as a result of the DUI, and have strong ties to the community.

If you are lucky enough to be released on your own recognizance, and DON'T show up to your court date, you will be arrested immediately with no chance of release from custody (even on bail).

DUI Arraignment

Arraignment begins when you first appear in court for your DUI offense. You stand before the judge who will:

  • Read the charges being brought against you.
  • Ask if you need an attorney (if you don't already have one).
  • Ask how you plea to the charges.
  • If applicable, make alterations to your bail.
  • Announce future court dates if you decide to plead not guilty.

For most people, arraignment is the first and only time you'll need to be in court. If you plead guilty, the judge will decide your punishment and you will not have to return afterwards.

However, if you decide to plead not guilty, then you will need to return to court for a preliminary hearing and trial. In this case, you will probably need to hire a DUI attorney to represent you.

If you have been charged with a felony DUI, it is strongly recommended that you hire an experienced DUI lawyer.

Preliminary Hearing

If you and/or your attorney decided it was best to plead not guilty at your arraignment, then you will need to attend a preliminary hearing. At this hearing the judge will decide if there's enough evidence against you to hold a trial.

The state prosecutor will usually call witnesses (which your attorney can cross-examine) to help prove that you should be tried in front of a jury. The prosecution might also present the judge with additional pieces of evidence to further prove that you were driving while intoxicated, which your lawyer will also need to argue against.

At the end of the preliminary hearing, the judge will either dismiss your case (so you don't have to go to trial) or send it to trial for a jury to decide upon.

DUI Trial by Jury

If the preliminary hearing judge decides there is enough evidence against you, you and your attorney will go to trial. The different stages of a DUI trial consist of:

  • Choosing a jury.
    • The court will interview a number of people, then allow the defense (your lawyer) and prosecution to exclude certain jurors who they believe to be unfit for the case.
  • Opening statements from your attorney and the state prosecutor.
    • Prosecution has a “burden of proof" against you, and will briefly outline the evidence and testimonies they have to help their case.
    • Your attorney will present an alternate interpretation of the incident and present laws that defend your stance.
  • Witness testimonies and cross examining.
    • Both sides of the case will have the opportunity to bring in their own witnesses and perform cross examinations.
  • Closing arguments from your attorney and the state prosecutor.
    • The prosecution will reiterate the validity of their evidence against you and reasons for why you're guilty.
    • Your attorney will summarize why the prosecution did not fulfill their responsibility to validate their “burden of proof," thereby proving your innocence.
  • Jury deliberation and decision.
    • The jury will either come to a unanimous verdict on your DUI charges or if their decision is split, a retrial or mistrial.
    • If a mistrial is declared, the charges against you will be dismissed.

Sentencing for a DUI

If you plead guilty or are found to be guilty by a jury, a judge will decide your sentence of punishment.

There are different avenues that the judge might take, depending on the severity of your charges and how frequently you've been convicted for DWI. The varying sentences include:

  • Ignition interlock devices.
    • You are required to blow into a Breathalyzer anytime you need to start your car.
  • DUI school and addiction treatment programs.
    • You are required to attend mandatory classes on alcohol education and/or attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or rehab.
    • Most people who receive this type of sentencing are able to retain their driving privileges once they've completed the program.
  • Revoking/suspending your license.
    • This sentence is usually applied to repeat DUI offenders, and takes away your legal right to drive for a specified amount of time.
  • Incarceration.
    • This usually applies to repeat offenders who have also put other people's lives in danger.
  • Car impoundment.
    • The court can take your car away from you for a specified amount of time, or even completely, depending on the severity of the charges.

Appealing DUI Charges

If you still feel that you were wrongly convicted, you can try file an appeal. You will need to hire an appeal lawyer to present your case to a higher court.

You will only be able to ask for an appeal if you believe that there were procedural or substantive errors during your trial:

  • A procedural error is one that has to do with decisions that were made during key moments of the trial. For example, your attorney might have talked you into pleading “guilty" at some point, but you believe that you had enough evidence to yield a “not guilty" verdict.
  • A substantive error is one that has to do with the evidence or testimonies presented during trial. For example, there might have been certain confessions or pieces of evidence that were not allowed to be presented at your first trial, but would have really helped your case.

Your attorney will argue that you deserve either to be tried again or that a mistrial be declared and the charges against you dismissed. The state's prosecution will also be there to argue that the guilty verdict should be upheld.

NOTE: It can take a long time for your appeal to be heard (months or years). It's wise to plan your future following a guilty DUI charge accordingly.

DMV.ORG BBB Business Review