Understanding a DUI defense in a court trial

Jon Bryant Artz DUI and Criminal Attorney, Lecturer and Editorial Consultant
Understanding a DUI defense in a court trial

The defense of a DUI charge in court is complex and involves a range of factors from your personal blood chemistry, to the dependability of the equipment used to obtain your blood alcohol content, to the procedures followed by the police in pulling you over, to your past arrest record.

The burden of proof to convict you for drunk driving in a court trial is the responsibility of the prosecution. The burden of proof is the highest standard in our legal system - it is a criminal case. The evidence against you must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, you should not assume you are automatically guilty, even if you failed the field sobriety test or your chemical blood and/or breath test results exceeded a blood alcohol content level of 0.08%. There is a "presumption of innocence" in the trial that remains with the defendant "until or unless the Defendant is proved guilty".

Your lawyer’s responsibility is to represent you by presenting circumstances and evidence that will demonstrate the prosecution can not or may not, be able to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The prosecution will focus on the following in your trial:

 

How you were driving when the police pulled you over

The police will stop you or pull you over based on a number of observed driving characteristics that are considered inconsistent with someone who is driving with full control of a vehicle. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has identified 24 visual DUI driving cues (PDF) for detecting an inebriated driver. Weaving, erratic speed, wide right turns are examples.

In your defense, an experienced DUI lawyer will focus on the police statement and observations of your driving prior to being pulled over. Of course, the officers will be focused on the negative driving cues that led them to stop you. On the other side, your lawyer will focus on all the driving cues that you did right and that are consistent with a driver who is not inebriated and is in control of their vehicle. If a driver reacts appropriately to the police cruiser's flashing lights, for example, then the driving is consistent with no failure of "divided attention" and it can be argued that the driver is not impaired - certainly not proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

How you looked and acted during their initial questioning

At your trial, the prosecutor will ask the police to testify about your physical appearance when they stopped you. The police will focus on your speech, whether was slurred, your general inability to focus when answering questions, and your eyes, which could be red or watery. What the police will not focus on nor even ask you about, is if you were affected by any allergies at that time, if you had been in a smoky environment, or if you were simply tired. These are all valid rational reasons to explain your physical condition and things your lawyer will raise in court. For example, through the discovery process, a booking photo might paint a different picture than the offered testimony.

Your field sobriety test results

The prosecution may claim you failed your field sobriety test results. But in reality, your physical ability to perform these tests correctly has to do with your ability to drive. After all, you did not have to perform any these tests at the DMV to get your license. It is probable that the trier of fact (court or jury) will give credit to the fact that you were nervous and anxious when you were pulled over, asked by a police officer to exit your car, and perform a set of physical tasks that you had never done before, most likely at night, in the dark, with traffic going by. Further, the prosecution criminalist can be forced to concede through cross-examination that the field sobriety tests do not tell the court whether a person is, or is not, under the influence.

Your chemical blood or breath test results

So your blood alcohol level exceeded .08 percent, either by blood test and/or breath test. The first question a competent DUI lawyer will ask, will be to question the accuracy and reliability of the machines used, and procedures that followed, to determine your blood alcohol content. If the machines can be proven to be accurate, the next set of questions will be about the time when your blood or breath test was administered relative to the time you were driving ( or stopped). If your blood alcohol content reading of 0.08 percent was obtained at a hospital or detention center some time after being pulled over, then there is a possibility that your blood alcohol content was in fact below 0.08 percent when you were driving. Therefore, you should not be guilty of a DUI - certainly there is reasonable doubt.

Summary:

A DUI defense can be complicated and involves a number of factors that a qualified and experienced DUI lawyer will know and utilize for your defense. The key is to remember you are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A good defense attorney can raise reasonable doubt in most cases.

Photo Credits: US Supreme Court by Flickr: dbking

Jon Bryant ArtzDUI and Criminal Attorney, Lecturer and Editorial Consultant

Mr. Artz has successfully defended in excess of 3000 DUI cases. He has tried to a jury more than 300 trials. He is also an editorial consultant for “California Drunk Driving Law”, a 2 volume treatise on DUI. He received his B.S. degree in ec...

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