California’s DUI Criminal Court Process Explained


So you were arrested for DUI. You’ve already requested (or decided not to request) an Administrative Per Se Hearing with the DMV, what comes next? Separate and apart from the DMV hearing, you will be required to appear before a judge in criminal court for an arraignment. This is the first step in the criminal proceedings. Arraignments can often be confusing and it is therefore advisable that you hire an attorney to represent you prior to the arraignment. (If you cannot afford an attorney, a public defender will step into to represent you but often the first time the public defender even sees your criminal file is right before you appear in front of the judge for your arraignment.)

At the arraignment, the judge and prosecutor will throw around a lot of legal terminology that may be unfamiliar to you but what you need to know is that the purpose of the arraignment is for the judge to inform you of the charges against you and for you to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Usually at the arraignment the prosecutor will offer a “plea bargain” wherein you agree to plead guilty in return for a particular sentence. You can accept the offer and plead guilty at the time of the arraignment. If that is what you choose to do, the criminal part of your DUI case will essentially be over. The judge will sentence you and you will only need to complete paperwork at the clerk’s desk and serve your sentence.

However, unless your DUI arrest presents no defense—and only your attorney can make this determination—it is wiser to plead not guilty at the arraignment. This will give your attorney time to review the evidence against you. Sometimes the evidence is open to legal challenges and your attorney may be able to successfully defend you against the charges or use evidence weaknesses to negotiate with the district attorney to reduce the charges.

Following your arraignment, and assuming you have pleaded “not guilty,” a court hearing (called a pre-trial hearing) will be scheduled. It is often at this hearing that the plea bargaining begins in earnest. And it is most often at the pre-trial hearing that a guilty plea is entered pursuant to a plea bargain made. By this time, your attorney should understand the circumstances of your arrest and the evidence against you and he or she will be in a good position to negotiate on your behalf with the district attorney or, as the case may be, decide that you have a good chance of fighting the charges.

If the circumstances of the arrest or the evidence obtained at the time of the arrest is open to legal challenge, your attorney may advise you to decline the plea bargain offer and chose to file a motion on your behalf challenging the arrest or evidence. When that happens, the district attorney will argue against the motion and usually there will be a hearing in open court. The judge will then decide whether to grant the motion or not. Some motions, if successful, will end in the charges against you being dismissed. If the court does not grant the motion, you may challenge the court’s decision in the appellate court but that is rare. More often, you will be back at “square one” so to speak and will need to decide whether to take the plea bargain offer or go all the way to trial.

It is rare that a DUI case goes to trial but it is your Constitutional right to be heard before a jury of your peers. However, that is not always advisable unless you have a rock solid defense. Jurors are not typically sympathetic to drunken driving and if you are found guilty, you risk a much harsher sentence than what was offered in a plea bargain deal.

William Weinberg has extensive experience defending those who have been charged with driving under the influence. Please feel free to contact him to set up a confidential consultation without charge at or by phone at (949) 474-8008.

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