Over just one weekend last year in this state – Labor Day weekend – California law enforcement officers made more than 2,000 arrests for driving under the influence. What happens when a motorist is arrested and prosecuted for DUI in California? And if that motorist is you, what are your legal options and your wisest course of action? Should you plead guilty or no contest, or should you plead not guilty and fight the charge?

If you plead not guilty to driving under the influence, you could be acquitted if the evidence against you is inadequate to prove the charge, but that’s only one possible outcome. If you insist on your innocence and there’s a trial, you could also be convicted and face a variety of penalties under California law. If you are a first-time offender and the DUI charge is a misdemeanor, the prosecutor might reduce the charge to “wet reckless” in exchange for a guilty plea to that charge. If the judge allows it, a first-time DUI offender might also plead “nolo contendere” or “no contest.”

Translated literally, the Latin term “nolo contendere” means “I do not wish to contest.” When a defendant enters a plea of nolo contendere or no contest in a California criminal court, that defendant is neither confessing to the crime nor denying it. In most ways, a no contest plea has basically the same legal effect as a guilty plea. A no contest plea to a DUI charge means the defendant will be convicted, a sentence will be imposed, and the defendant will have a criminal conviction on record. What, then, is the benefit – if any – of pleading no contest to a California DUI charge?

HOW DOES A NO CONTEST PLEA DIFFER FROM A GUILTY PLEA?

The most important difference between a guilty plea to a DUI charge and a no contest plea is that a no contest plea cannot be used as evidence against a defendant if that defendant faces a civil action – if he or she is sued for injuries, for example – at a later time. Victims who are injured by intoxicated drivers have the right to file a personal injury lawsuit to obtain reimbursement for their accident-related medical expenses.

If the driver charged with driving under the influence pleads or is found guilty, the guilty verdict can then be used in a civil personal injury proceeding as evidence of the driver’s liability. But if the plea to the criminal charge is no contest, there is no admission of guilt and no criminal conviction that can be used as evidence in a civil trial. There may also be other benefits to a no contest plea in a DUI case. Defendants avoid the trouble and expense of a trial, and they may also avoid the harsher penalties that a conviction by a jury might entail.

A defendant must obtain the permission of the court to plead no contest in a California DUI case (or any other California criminal proceeding). Judges must see to it that no contest pleas are made voluntarily and without any confusion, misunderstanding, or intimidation. If you are accused of driving under the influence in Southern California, you should not even speak to the police or prosecutors – and you certainly should not make any formal plea – without first obtaining the counsel of an experienced Orange County DUI defense lawyer.

WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF PLEADING NO CONTEST TO DUI?

Legally, apart from the benefit to DUI suspects who face personal injury lawsuits arising from the DUI incident, California law considers a no contest plea to be the exact equivalent of a guilty plea or a trial conviction. Although a defendant has not admitted to a crime and has not been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, the case still appears on the offender’s criminal history as a conviction – and as a prior offense if the offender is charged with another crime in the future.

An offender who is convicted of a second or third DUI offense will be looking at much harsher punishment than a first-time offender. California DUI laws are designed to impose stiffer penalties on those who fail to “learn their lesson” the first time. Thus, if you plead no contest to a DUI charge, and then you are arrested for a second driving under the influence violation at any time in the next ten years, you’ll face harsher penalties than drivers who are charged with a first offense.

When a DUI suspect is truly innocent, it’s natural and right that he or she will want to plead not guilty. Even when a suspect was in fact actually driving under the influence, a not guilty plea can sometimes be entered to see if the state has adequate evidence to obtain a conviction. If the state does have that adequate evidence, the defendant’s not guilty plea can usually be changed at any time during the trial.

WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS IF YOU ARE CHARGED WITH DUI?

Everyone in California who is charged with driving under the influence or with any other crime has the right to avoid self-incrimination and to plead not guilty or no contest. Even when the evidence against a defendant is persuasive, in some cases California DUI lawyers may advise their clients to plead not guilty as a bargaining strategy – if the DUI lawyer believes that a better final resolution can be obtained by entering a not guilty plea.

In many first-offense, misdemeanor DUI cases, a defendant will be offered a plea bargain by the prosecutor. The typical offer in such a case is a reduction of the charge – from DUI to “wet reckless” – in exchange for a plea of guilty or no contest to the wet reckless charge. If a defendant accepts the plea bargain, the defendant is convicted on the lesser charge – the equivalent of reckless driving – and no trial takes place. Defendants who reject the state’s offer are then tried on the DUI charge.

If you are accused of driving under the influence in Southern California, consider your plea options carefully. The plea decision is yours and yours alone, but you should probably heed the advice of an experienced Orange County DUI defense lawyer. When you face a driving under the influence charge, the options you choose will affect your family, your finances, your employment, and your driving privilege – possibly for years to come.