Driving under the influence (DUI) is a serious crime in California.

Navigating the California DUI Court Process

Driving under the influence (DUI) is a serious crime in California. Understanding the legal process and potentially severe consequences is important for anyone facing DUI charges. This guide is meant to walk you through what happens when you are arrested for a DUI and the various steps to expect in the court process ahead.

Step 1: Arrest

The DUI court process begins when somebody is arrested by law enforcement for driving under the influence of alcohol. This usually occurs when a person is pulled over in their car or stopped at a DUI check point for suspicion of drunk driving.

Field Sobriety Tests (FST’s)

An officer may ask the driver to perform a series of field sobriety tests if they are suspected of drunk driving. For example, an officer may ask the driver to stand on one leg, count backwards from 100, walk-and-turn, or follow a light with their eyes. These tests are meant to assess the driver’s balance, coordination, and cognitive abilities to help the officer determine if they are under the influence of alcohol. Most people don’t know that participating in FST’s is optional. If you have been drinking, it’s probably a good idea to refuse them, even it if means going to jail.

Preliminary Alcohol Screening (PAS) Tests

Portable breathalyzer machines are used by law enforcement officers to measure someone’s blood alcohol content (BAC). This is a type of field sobriety test administered at the scene when someone is suspected of driving under the influence. These tests are not mandatory unless the driver is already on DUI probation or under the age of 21.

Probable Cause Determination

The officer will determine if there is probable cause to arrest someone for driving under the influence based on the officer’s observations, the driver’s statements, any accidents or injuries, and the results of the FSTs and PAS test (if taken).


Someone will be formally arrested if the officer believes there is sufficient evidence that they were driving under the influence and there is probable cause to support criminal charges. Once placed under arrest, the officer should inform the person of their constitutional rights (Miranda Rights), including the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent before further questioning. They will then be transported to the police station for booking and further chemical testing. They will either be held in jail until they can post a bond or released and given a notice to appear with their next court date information. The vehicle is likely going to be towed and impounded, but some officers will allow a friend or family member to retrieve the vehicle. This usually depends on the amount of cooperation and respect you show to the arresting officer; it is entirely discretionary.

Chemical Tests

Anyone arrested for a DUI in California must undergo a series of chemical tests at the police station to provide a more accurate measure of their BAC. They will have the option of providing a second a more accurate/reliable breathalyzer test or providing a blood sample. If they refuse to do a breath test and refuse to give a blood sample, there may be additional legal consequences and the DMV will impose an automatic 1-year suspension of their license. It is important to note that even if one refuses to provide a chemical test, law enforcement may still be able to get a warrant to draw someone’s blood by force and without consent.

Step 2: Arraignment:

The arraignment is the start of the criminal legal process and first court appearance in a DUI case. The arraignment date, time, and court location will usually be provided on someone’s booking documents or notice to appear. If one fails to show up to court for their arraignment, a warrant will be issued for their arrest. At the arraignment, a defendant will be notified of their charges and asked to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The judge will set future court dates and the prosecutor will have the option to ask for pretrial release conditions such as attending weekly AA meetings or wearing an alcohol monitoring device. It is crucial to have an attorney at the arraignment who is prepared to address any potential release conditions and offer advice about pleading guilty or moving forward with the case.

Step 3: Pretrial Proceedings:

Several court dates may occur after an arraignment including readiness conferences and preliminary hearings before a case goes to trial. The defense will have an opportunity to review discovery, correspond with the prosecution, conduct their own investigation, and consider possible settlements to resolve the case pre-trial. Standard DUI settlement offers include pleading guilty in exchange for some term of probation, mandatory DUI classes, and fines. Once a settlement is reached the defendant will sign a plea agreement and appear in court to plead guilty. Most DUI cases proceed immediately to sentencing after a guilty plea is entered in court.

Step 4: DUI Trial:

The case will proceed to trial if a plea agreement cannot be reached between the defense and prosecution. At trial both sides will give opening and closing statements, present evidence, call witnesses, and argue their case before a judge or jury. The prosecution has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was driving under the influence of alcohol and any alleged special circumstances. If the defendant is found guilty after trial the case will be set for sentencing. If the defendant is found not guilty, however, the criminal case proceedings will end.

Step 5: Sentencing:

If the defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty after trial, the next step in the criminal case process is sentencing. The penalties for a DUI conviction in California range depending on the seriousness of the case. Factors judges will consider at sentencing include the driver’s criminal history (specifically number of prior DUI’s), their BAC level, and any aggravating circumstances such as if someone was injured or the driver damaged property. DUI sentences include jail and prison time, probation, license suspension, mandatory alcohol classes, community service, alcohol monitoring, and heavy fines.

Step 6: Probation:

Most people convicted of a DUI in California will be sentenced to some form of probation in lieu of custody. Felony probation is more formal and requires the defendant to check in with their probation officer periodically and follow additional restrictions. Misdemeanor probation is informal and typically imposed for 3 years for a first time DUI conviction. Standard DUI probation terms include abstaining from driving with any detectable amount of alcohol, avoiding future legal trouble, attending alcohol education classes, and fines. One must complete all of the terms ordered by the judge and meet strict deadlines to successfully get off of probation. If someone fails to complete a term of their probation or misses a deadline, however, a warrant may go out for their arrest. They will likely need to appear in court to address such violations before they can be reinstated on probation.

Experienced California DUI Lawyers

Having the right legal representation to explain and navigate the criminal court process can make a huge difference for anyone facing DUI charges in California. From arrest to arraignment and trial, it is critical to be prepared and know what to expect every step of the way. Our experienced DUI lawyers will work to protect your rights, challenge the evidence, negotiate with prosecutors, and minimize the consequences of your arrest. If you or a loved one is facing DUI charges in California, contact the Law Offices of David Silldorf to learn how we can help fight your case.



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