Pros and Cons of an Attorney If You Get a DUI

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Does it help to hire an attorney if you are charged with driving under the influence (DUI)? Or will hiring an attorney instead be another in a long line of expenses if you are charged with a DUI? The answer depends on if can you afford it and whether are you truly innocent.

If this is your first drunk driving offense or your first brush with the law for any reason, expect that you might be in for an expensive process.

Do You Need an Attorney?

DUI is a serious offense that could affect your future and employment. Most attorneys will tell you that you "need" to hire an attorney who focuses on defending drunk drivers. Attorneys promise they "may" be able to save your driver's license or get your drunk driving charge reduced or dismissed. The key is the word "may."

An attorney may be able to reduce charges or preserve your driving privileges, but this is not guarunteed.

There was a time when hiring a drunk driving attorney could result in you being able to plead to a lesser charge—such as reckless driving—pay a fine and be done with it. But that was before all 50 states passed what is known as drunk driving per se and other laws, making it mandatory for intoxicated drivers to be judged on the DUI charge.

Blood-Alcohol Level Determines Guilt

What the per se laws say is, in every state in the U.S., if your blood-alcohol content (BAC) is above the legal limit, you can be found guilty of DUI. In 2018, this limit was set at .05 in Utah, and as of 2020, the limit is .08 in all other states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. It does not matter that you were not staggering or slurring your words or in no other way appeared to be intoxicated, your BAC level alone is all the evidence needed to convict you of DUI.

One key to determining if hiring a drunk driving attorney will do you any good is knowing your BAC level at the time of your arrest. If you recorded 0.08 or higher, there is little doubt that you will be convicted and have to pay all the fines, fees, and extra expenses involved with having a DUI conviction on your driving record.

In some cases, having an attorney won't make a difference. If your blood alcohol level measures .08 or above, you will lose your license, be required to pay fines and/or higher insurance rates, and will face conviction.

Your License May Be Suspended—Lawyer or Not

As of 2020, 48 states, the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands have passed administrative license suspension (ALR) laws that allow law enforcement officials to immediately confiscate and suspend your driver's license on the spot if you fail a field sobriety test or record a BAC level over the legal limit.

These laws allow your driver's license to be suspended as an administrative sanction, which is independent from criminal court proceedings. The reason for this is because your driving privileges are granted by a state, which means that the state, therefore, can take your privileges away.

As for the two states that do not have ALRs, your license is not suspended until you go to court, but it can become suspended if you plead guilty or are convicted. Instead of ALRs, Pennsylvania uses Occupational Limited License (OLL) and Ignition Interlock Limited License (IILL) programs, and Louisiana mandates ignition interlocks for high BAC (.20 and above) and for repeat and first-time convictions.

In most states, if you refuse to take a breath test, your license is immediately confiscated and revoked.

Other Charges or Circumstances at the Time of DUI

If there are other factors that could lead to receiving an enhanced sentence, such as a repeat offense, property damages, injuries, or endangerment of a child, you may have "aggravating circumstances."

An attorney may be able to help mitigate some of those factors, but in many states, even those sentence enhancements carry mandatory penalties—especially for repeat offenders. In serious cases such as these, hiring an attorney may not help change the outcome of your case. However, it is possible that the terms of your sentence could be reduced in terms of severity with the help of an attorney.

Obvious Circumstance Where You Should Hire an Attorney

In the event that you are truly innocent, such as you were not drinking at all, but failed the field sobriety test or the breath test, then if you can, definitely hire an attorney. You will need one. Do not try to represent yourself if you plan to argue on behalf of your innocence—you should definitely seek legal counsel.

Ways an Attorney Can Help

Mostly what an attorney can do for you is make sure you are prepared to go to court by helping you understand what is going to be expected of you. An attorney can help you complete some requirements prior to your court appearance.

For example, your attorney may help you obtain SR-22 auto insurance and file the proper forms with the department of motor vehicles. Also, your attorney may have you complete an alcohol education or treatment programs required by your state in order to regain your driving privileges.

In other words, your attorney can guide you through the process that they know you will eventually have to go through anyway. It's best to expedite this process prior to your sentencing so that your driving privileges are restored as quickly as possible.

Bottom Line

If you can afford to pay a DUI lawyer's fees, then hire the best attorney you can afford. If this is your first experience with breaking the law and you are overwhelmed by the process, a skilled attorney can walk you through the steps and help make things go as smoothly as possible.

However, if you are strapped for cash and you're worried about the high costs of the fines and expenses that come with a drunk driving conviction, then hiring an attorney may not be your best course of action, especially if this is your first offense and you aren't facing additional charges. In many cases, a lawyer represents just another bill you will have to pay. Regardless, it's always advisable to seek legal counsel whenever possible before making your plea to the judge.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Conference of State Legislatures. Criminal Status of State Drunken Driving Laws. 2019.

  2. National Conference of State Legislators. Drunken Driving. Updated August 28, 2020.

  3. Governor's Highway Safety Association. Alcohol Impaired Driving. 2020.

  4. National Conference of State Legislators. Criminal Status of State Drunken Driving Laws. Updated April 4, 2019.