It may not seem that important when it happens. You plead guilty to a misdemeanor first offense DUI charge, take the minimal penalty, and move on with your life. Pleading guilty to a first DUI charge may seem like the convenient, expedient thing to do; usually, however, it isn’t. If you are arrested and charged with driving under the influence in Southern California, pleading guilty is almost never a good idea – unless your DUI attorney specifically recommends that you enter a guilty plea.

If you do choose to plead guilty to driving under the influence, you will probably be asked – by the bailiff or by your lawyer if you have retained one – to complete a form which confirms that by pleading guilty, you are waiving your constitutional rights – your right to remain silent, your right to cross-examine witnesses, and your right to have a verdict decided by a jury of your peers. That form will also explain the penalties that you will potentially face as a convicted DUI offender. Usually, judges will go through the form with a defendant in open court – line by line –  to ensure a defendant’s complete understanding of the plea and the penalties.

The reason a defendant must sign the form, and one of the reasons why judges review it in court, is so that a convicted DUI offender cannot at a later date challenge the conviction by saying that he or she was not fully informed about the guilty plea and its consequences. Once you plead guilty to driving under the influence, you have been convicted. A guilty plea equals a conviction just as if a jury had returned a guilty verdict.

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When you face a DUI charge in California, three things will happen at your first court date, the arraignment hearing. A judge will explain the charge(s) against you and the potential maximum penalty; you will enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest; and the judge or prosecutor will give you the “standard offer,” the same basic plea deal that is offered to everyone who is charged with driving under the influence. The standard offer helps prosecutors resolve cases quickly and helps keep the courts from becoming even more backlogged. However, if you are a defendant, accepting the standard offer, and the conviction that comes with it, is rarely a good idea.

WHY IS ACCEPTING THE STANDARD OFFER RARELY A GOOD IDEA?

Once convicted, it is virtually impossible in California to withdraw a guilty plea. If you do not have a DUI attorney advising you, or if a public defender is pushing you to plead guilty, you must make sure that you are making the right decision in the context of your particular case. Because the standard offer is the same for everyone, it fails to consider your record, who you are, or the details of your arrest. It is always wise to have your own lawyer assess your case and any plea deal that is offered.

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A conviction for even a first offense misdemeanor DUI can land you in jail for up to six months in this state. Moreover, if you plead guilty (like thousands in California) without an attorney’s advice, you will probably pay court costs, fines that could amount to over $1,000, and face a suspension of your driver’s license. If you are sentenced to probation, it could last three to five years, and you could face jail if any of the terms of probation are violated.

In California, convicted DUI offenders must also participate in court-ordered alcohol classes, counseling, and/or treatment as a term of probation. Mandatory DUI classes are usually burdensome and always expensive. In some counties and in some cases, you might also be ordered to install an ignition interlock device in your personal vehicle – you will pay for the installation and a monthly maintenance fee – and your auto insurance rates are also certain to go up.

IN A DUI CASE, HOW MUCH CAN A LAWYER REALLY HELP?

On the other hand, if you retain an experienced DUI lawyer to represent you, and that attorney is successful, you might pay nothing but a lawyer’s fee. Obviously, the extent to which a DUI lawyer can help a defendant depends on the details of the case, but an experienced Orange County DUI attorney can always provide sound legal advice and advocacy to anyone charged with driving under the influence in Southern California.

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Of course, if a previous DUI conviction is on your record, that changes everything. If you are charged a second time with driving under the influence, your first DUI guilty plea will be held against you. If you did not cause any damage or injuries and you were just under the limit, you might get the minimum sentence for a second driving under the influence offense. But if you were speeding, driving recklessly, or substantially over the legal blood alcohol limit, expect no leniency from a California court for a second or subsequent offense.

Clearly, the best way to handle a second driving under the influence conviction is to heed the most basic advice – don’t drink and drive. Do not make the same mistake twice. If you are arrested again for driving under the influence, you must not plead guilty to a second or subsequent DUI charge or to any felony DUI charge unless your attorney recommends a guilty plea as part of a plea deal. Far too much is at stake the second time around.

HOW DOES A “HARVEY WAIVER” DIFFER FROM A STANDARD OFFER?

If driving under the influence is one of several charges against you, rather than the “standard offer,” a prosecutor may recommend a plea deal that includes a “Harvey Waiver.” That means one of the charges will be dropped and will not appear on your record, but the sentence you would have received for that charge is then added to your sentence for the charge that wasn’t dismissed. If a defendant accepts a Harvey Waiver, he or she must also pay any fines and restitution that would have been part of the sentence for the charge that was dismissed.

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Any DUI conviction in California will impact your family and your future, and not in a good way. If you are charged with driving under the influence in Southern California, it’s best to have an experienced Orange County DUI attorney fight for the dismissal of charges, win your acquittal at trial, or negotiate a plea bargain you can live with. Again, the best way to protect yourself from any and all DUI-associated legal trouble is simply to avoid drinking and driving. If you drive in California – or anywhere, for that matter – sobriety is always the best policy.