The DUI Trial Process in Georgia
Driving under the influence (DUI) cases are the most litigated cases in the State of Georgia. Prosecutors and judges are tough on DUI in most jurisdictions and reductions and dismissals are few and far between. Because of the serious consequences of a DUI like incarceration and driver's license suspension, many people charged with DUI choose to go to trial. There is generally a choice between having a jury trial or a bench trial. If a DUI is charged as a misdemeanor (and most first-time offenses are), you get a jury of 6 people who are citizens of the county in which the alleged offense occurred. If there is a serious accident with injuries, children in the vehicle, illegal drugs, or if you are a repeat offender or habitual violator, your DUI may be charged as a felony. In this case, you are allowed a jury of 12 citizens.
A bench trial refers to a trial in which the judge decides guilty or not guilty and there are no jurors. With a jury trial, the jurors hear the evidence, arguments and law during the trial, and then they deliberate as to the issue of guilty or not guilty. The verdict must be unanimous. If all the jurors cannot agree, the judge can declare a hung jury and a new trial will be set for some time in future. If the jury finds the driver guilty, the presiding trial judge (and never the jury) determines the sentence. This can be a stressful situation as the judge has a lot of latitude in what punishments to impose and can order immediate jail time. That is one of the main reasons why a DUI lawyer is needed to help advise you of the risk and reward of trial. Most importantly, a dedicated Atlanta DUI lawyer can help you identity possible defenses and win your case.
DUI Trial Preparation In Georgia:
Typically, the court process is very slow-moving, and in many metro Atlanta jurisdictions, an accused driver is looking at a year or longer wait to be on a trial calendar. In the meantime, you might be suffering a license suspension or restrictions on your ability to advance at work due to the pending case. Your attorney will accumulate the evidence against you as early as possible in the process. In a DUI case, the evidence usually only consists of the police officer's report, video or audio of the incident, and the chemical test results. If there was an accident, there may be some witness statements or a separate accident report.
You will have a chance to review this information with your attorney and your attorney will meet with the prosecutor and attempt to work out the most favorable plea bargain. It is always 100% your decision as to whether you want to accept any plea agreement your attorney and the prosecutor have reached. A plea bargain is really just a compromise and its quality depends on how good the facts of your case are, the jurisdiction, the particular prosecutor that is assigned your case, and your prior record and age. If an acceptable plea negotiation cannot be reached, your case will proceed to a trial calendar.
Motions Practice In A Georgia DUI Case:
There are many different courts and judges in the Atlanta metro area and north Georgia. Every judge has his or her way of handling his or her docket. A good DUI lawyer will file Pre-trial Motions for your case. These motions generally include a Motion to Suppress the DUI arrest or results of the field or chemical tests. Every case has different facts, but some commonly occurring motions in DUI cases are motions that ask the judge to dismiss the DUI case based on lack of probable cause to arrest for DUI or that there was not a legal basis for the stop to begin in the first place (such as no traffic offense or a poorly administered roadblock).
Judges can be hesitant to dismiss cases at the motions stage unless the officer was clearly in error, but a pre-trial motion is still a great opportunity to begin fighting your case and locking the arresting officer into his or her testimony. Some judges have a separate motions date for these issues to be heard and some set them for just prior to the beginning of your trial. An attorney skilled in DUI defense knows what other issues to look for that can lead to the test results being thrown out at the Motions hearing. Common issues in a DUI case are faulty or misleading implied consent advisements, improper administration of the field sobriety tests (particularly the HGN eye test), coercion or misstatements of the law on the behalf of the arresting officer, and Miranda rights or custody issues.
The Decision to Go to Trial in a Georgia DUI Case:
Making the decision to proceed to trial is a stressful one and careful preparation is necessary. Your DUI lawyer will handle all the logistics of the trial but there are always some important issues that you will have to decide together. The most important is whether you want to testify. A Defendant in a criminal proceeding always has the right either to testify or to remain silent. Since the government has the burden of proof, many defendants do not testify and offer no evidence at trial. Instead, they simply allow their lawyer to poke holes in the State's arguments and then argue there is no evidence for conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.
Deciding whether or not to testify is not an easy choice to make. Testifying can greatly help your case, because it is the only time you get to tell your side of the story to the judge or jury. You can explain directly that you were scared or nervous or that you had nothing to drink. The downside is that the prosecutor is allowed to cross-examine you if you decide to take the stand. Their job is to punch holes in your story. If you have a prior history and the prosecutor has done his or her homework, they can use that against you when on the stand. They can try to make your story seem implausible or you to seem like a liar trying to avoid conviction by any means. Testifying can be an unpleasant experience. If you do make the decision to take the stand, your attorney can help you prepare with what the most common cross-examination questions may be.
Evidentiary Issues and Witnesses in a Georgia DUI Case:
Another decision you will make is what other evidence you want to present at trial. Evidence can be photographs, witnesses or medical records. In 2013, the Georgia Rules of Evidence changed to make it easier for people charged in criminal matters like DUI to admit certified medical records showing medical conditions. If you did not perform well on field tests because of a broken ankle or bad knee, a medical record from your physician could be admitted in some circumstances to bolster your argument to the jury. Photographs of the scene of the stop can also be very helpful to a jury. Your Georgia DUI lawyer can use the power of the court to subpoena any witness to your trial. Witnesses generally fall into two categories – (1) people who were present when the incident occurred (or shortly before); and (2) expert witnesses.
As for the first type of witness, this is common sense. If you had a friend, co-worker or family member with you when you were stopped for DUI, they could be a trial witness to explain what they witnessed to the jury. For example, if you were at the restaurant with a co-worker, your co-worker could testify that you only drank 1 beer at the restaurant the entire evening and they chose to ride with you because they knew you had not been drinking. It is up to the jurors to decide how much credit to give to the witnesses you call to the stand. In some DUI cases, we argue the defense of involuntary intoxication. Involuntary intoxication is a defense to DUI.
Basically, it means that the Defendant admits that he or she was driving under the influence, but we allege a justification for the behavior. Sometimes drinks are spiked with drugs and a person becomes intoxicated involuntary and unknowingly. DUI can be justified if someone is fleeing a dangerous situation – like if they are being shot at or attacked. Witnesses can be key in explaining these defenses to a jury. Witnesses can also be important in DUI cases that do not involve driving. Oftentimes, an officer responds to a call after someone has parked or arrived home. It is difficult for an officer to piece back whether or not the driver was intoxicated at the actual time of driving and witness testimony can discredit the officer's assumed version of events.
The second type of witness often used in a DUI trial is an expert witness. Our DUI law firm works with a number of experts to help win cases. Expert witnesses are not witnesses who were there at the time of the events. The most common types of experts in DUI trials are medical experts such as doctors or toxicologists who can explain blood or breath test results or who have treated you for medical conditions like acid reflux or diabetes. Former police officers with a background in DUI detection can be called as experts to discredit your arresting officer's application of field tests. Many officers who make DUI arrests do not administer the field sobriety tests correctly and an expert can explain this effectively to the jury. Finally, in cases where there is blood or breath testing that yields over the limit results, an expert in blood or breath testing can be called to discredit the Intoxilyzer machine or hospital methods.
In many cases, more than one expert may be needed to properly assert the defense. Expert witnesses are excellent allies in DUI cases but can be cost prohibitive. Typically, an expert requires a substantial fee to even review the case. This is unfortunate because prosecutors often resort to junk science and assumptions and it is very expensive to call medical doctors and pharmacy professors to court to dispel their unfair arguments. An experienced Georgia DUI Attorney will know many of the experts who can be helpful to your particular defense and a discussion regarding the hiring of an expert should happen as soon as the trial decision is made.
Of course, a defendant does not have to call any witnesses or experts or offer any evidence. Sometimes the State's own evidence is the defendant's best argument for why they should be found not guilty. In many Atlanta jurisdictions, police cars have a dash camera that captures the DUI investigation. A good video in which a driver performs well on field tests, walks and talks normally, and does not appear confused or disoriented can go a long way to having the jury find you not guilty. A camera does not lie, so the video is generally admissible evidence in court and can be crucial in having you acquitted. In cases with video evidence, sometimes the best defense is asking a jury to use their common sense and reason.
The Day of Your Georgia Jury Trial:
Most DUI jury trials take approximately two days. Most judges will not “specially set” your trial and instead you remain “on call” along with numerous other cases during a trial calendar week or weeks. This means that during the trial calendar period when the judge has jurors available, you can be called in at any time for the trial of your case. This can be difficult with work and child care schedules, but most judges and courts are concerned with moving the trial calendar along and not with what is convenient for those accused of DUI.
The first part of the trial will be the jury selection phase. During jury selection, there will be a larger pool of people from which the jury is selected. Both the defense and the prosecution will have a number of strikes and the remaining jurors in the pool will be the ones who will hear your case. This means that we get to strike the jurors who we think might not be fair to our side, but the prosecutor gets to do the same. This helps to ensure a fair jury to both sides. Your lawyer will ask the questions to the jurors and you will have input as to how you want to use your strikes.
Once the jury is selected, the judge will give them an oath and then the trial will begin with opening statements. The prosecutor gets to go first and give a short statement of what he or she expects the facts of the case to show. Then your lawyer will get to give their opening statement saying what you believe the facts will show. The statements of the lawyers are not evidence, and the jury will be instructed as such.
The prosecution gets to present its case first. Typically in a DUI case, the only witnesses the State may have are the police officers involved in the case. This can be the stopping officer, the arresting officer, and the officer who administered the breath test. Sometimes, this can be just one officer. If your case involved a blood or urine test, a witness from the State crime lab will be required to come as will the nurse who drew the blood.
If there is video footage, that will be played during in the arresting officer's direct testimony in most instances. Your attorney will get the opportunity to cross-examine each of the State's witnesses and try to exploit holes in their version of the events. When the State rests its case, your attorney can make a motion for a directed verdict. This means they can ask the judge to rule that the State has not presented sufficient evidence to allow the jury to convict. Usually, the judge will want the jury to decide the case and will deny the motion for directed verdict.
At this point, the defense can begin to present its case. Witnesses can be called and the defendant can testify or remain silent. After the defense rests, the State may call old or new witnesses in rebuttal. Particularly, if the defense calls a scientific expert, the State prosecutor may have its own expert witness ready to offer rebuttal testimony of the defense expert.
Finally, when all the witnesses are finished, the attorneys get to make closing arguments. The prosecutor gets to make two closing arguments and the defense attorney only one. The prosecutor always gets the chance to have the final word in the argument. After argument, the judge reads the jury the law. This is the jury instructions. The attorneys submit their positions on the applicable law regarding the case. The judge reviews the proposed instructions and decides the law applicable to the case. The judge then advises the jury of the laws by reading those jury instructions to them. Finally, the jury will retire to the jury room to deliberate.
Once the judge reads the law, the jurors are finally allowed to discuss the case with each other. Sometimes they can make a quick decision and sometimes their deliberations linger on for hours. Defense lawyers and clients need to stay close to the courthouse as the jury can come back at any time. When they are all in agreement, the verdict is read in the court – guilty or not guilty on each count of the accusation. If the jury finds the defendant guilty of any of the offenses, the judge decides the sentence. Depending on the charges, the range of punishments can vary, but your Georgia DUI lawyer will let you know prior to trial what the range is and what you are likely facing. If you are found Not Guilty, you should talk to your lawyer about expungement of the arrest from your record. However, expungement is only possible if the defendant is acquitted of all charges.
The Best Defense Begins Here:
A trial is a stressful but necessary tool to win DUI cases and protect your record. From the decision to have a trial, a bench vs. jury trial, to testify or not testify, what defenses to raise and what witnesses to call, a Georgia DUI Attorney is critical in getting the best outcome and ensuring that your rights are protected. Our office is the top-rated Georgia DUI defense firm. Call us 24 hours a day, 7 days week.