A DUI starts with flashing lights and almost always ends with a series of very large checks.
In between, you could spend a night in the clink. You'll meet a bail bondsman. Some states will impound your car. And you can kiss low car insurance rates goodbye. You'll have to deal with the courts as you attempt to keep a conviction off your record, and you'll have to deal with the DMV as you try to keep your license.
Do you need a lawyer?
Lawyers say yes, of course. But even they admit a first-time offender willing to take his lumps might come out OK.
"If you know your blood alcohol is above the limit and that you're likely to be convicted, you may be able to put yourself at the mercy of the court," says Jim Ellis, a Belleville, Ill., attorney who specializes in drunk en-driving cases "But if it's a second offense [or more] or there was an accident, you'd better have an attorney."
And if your aim is to avoid a conviction or to try to keep your driving privileges, a lawyer who knows which levers to pull is almost certainly your best shot.
The stakes: your license and your auto insurance
There are no guarantees you'll escape a conviction, but having professional guidance raises the chance of a less severe outcome. Considering the consequences -- from license revocation to hefty fines to much higher insurance premiums -- it pays to be prepared.
"Drivers convicted of drunken driving face huge increases in their auto insurance rates, which can easily triple or more, if the insurer agrees to continue carrying the offender," says Elizabeth Mosely, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.
Premium hikes depend on many elements -- from your prior driving record to where you live -- but most insurance experts agree that a conviction can bring a jump of 30 percent or more. A CarInsurance.com report points out that a typical DUI can cost the driver at least $10,000 and possibly as much as $20,000 in legal fees, state fines and penalties, lost time from work, driving- school expenses, higher insurance costs and raised liability limits.
Typically, a driver will immediately have his license suspended from six months to one year. Once the license is reinstated, most states require that the driver have an SR-22 certificate verifying adequate liability coverage for three years.
Take the sobriety tests?
It usually starts with the flashing lights of a patrol car. Once you're pulled over, the officer will suggest a series of "field sobriety tests" to judge your physical state and a Breathalyzer test for a body alcohol reading. Lawrence Taylor, an attorney who heads a group of Southern California law offices and runs the California Drunk Driving Law Center, says you should decline the field tests.
"The reason I recommend that you refuse these tests is that you are under no legal obligation to take them and that they are very difficult to pass," he explains, adding that fully sober men and women have failed the finger-to-nose and walk-the-line exercises.
As for the Breathalyzer, Ellis says it also should be refused. "It is unlikely that you can avoid being charged with a DUI, even if you blow under a .08," the legal alcohol limit, he says. But if you have an accident involving injury or property damage, you'll probably be given a blood test, which is required by law in most states.
What DUI attorneys do
The legal process is designed to get drunken drivers off the road. Most states automatically suspend the license of a driver who refuses a Breathalyzer test, but there is a hardship appeals process if you move quickly. If you are taken into custody for a DUI or DWI, your license will be suspended even before you're convicted unless you quickly ask for an administrative hearing.
"A drunken-driving conviction can be devastating, especially if you need to drive for your job," Ellis says. "The moment you're stopped [by police] is the moment you should start thinking of getting an attorney."
The reasons are clear, say Ellis and other lawyers. An attorney will ensure your rights through the process, from the police station to the courtroom and provide you with guidance that could help resolve your case in the fairest way possible. Further, Ellis notes, a good lawyer will act as an investigator by determining if there are any mitigating circumstances that could be relevant when facing a judge.
"You have to consider the scene [of the arrest] and all conditions to get all the facts straight,' he says."It could be as simple, but significant, as what kind of shoes you were wearing. Did they have heels that could have affected [how you did on] the field sobriety test? Or what the terrain was like; was it rough terrain [that was hard to navigate]? Every detail becomes valuable."
And, if that detail keeps your license or a cap on your insurance rates, even more valuable.
When to say 'I want a lawyer'
You'll have to let the police know that you want representation ("They won't 'Mirandize' you," notes Ellis. "You're pretty much on your own"). When's the best time? As soon as the more revealing questions -- beyond your name, date of birth and where you live -- begin.
"Make your intentions known when they ask you things like, 'When was the last time you slept or had something to eat?' or 'How much did you drink tonight?'." says Ellis, who also contributes to DrivingLaws.org. "That's when you assert your legal rights. Refuse those questions, politely, and ask for an attorney."
What will representation cost? It's difficult to gauge because of each case's variables, from its complexity to where you live (an attorney will probably be more expensive in New York City than in a small Midwest town), but expect anywhere from a few hundred dollars to much more. Initial consultations are usually free. A second offense will cost more to fight than a first offense.
"The range of fees is huge," says Taylor. "A general practitioner in a small community may charge only $500-$1,000, [while] a DUI specialist with a national reputation may charge up to $15,000 or more, depending on the facts."
What to ask a DUI lawyer
- Do you charge by the hour or a flat fee?
- What is your rate?
- What does the rate cover? Not cover?
- How and when do you expect payment?