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What To Expect During a DUI Trial

A trial for driving under the influence (DUI) is a criminal trial. In a criminal trial, a jury examines the evidence to decide whether you, the defendant, committed the crime in question. A trial is the government's opportunity to argue its case, hoping to obtain a guilty verdict and a conviction.

A trial also represents the defense's chance to refute the government's evidence and to offer its own evidence in some cases. After both sides have presented their arguments, the jury decides whether to find you guilty or not guilty of the charged crime.

Although a trial is the most high-profile phase of the criminal justice process, most DUI cases are resolved well before trial. This happens through the entry of guilty or no contest pleas, plea bargains, or the dismissal of charges.

This article first addresses why a DUI case might go to trial before discussing the six phases of a typical DUI trial, beginning with the jury selection process and followed by opening statements. Next, the article addresses witness testimony, cross-examination of witnesses, and closing statements. Finally, the article discusses jury instructions, deliberations, and verdicts.

Why Would a DUI Case Go to Trial?

You might choose to have your DUI case go to trial if the evidence against you isn't solid. Your lawyer can challenge various aspects of evidence in a DUI case and might raise challenges to the evidence against you by questioning:

  • The accuracy of breath test results or the way the chemical testing was conducted to determine your blood alcohol concentration (BAC)
  • The arresting officer's training and credentialing
  • The legality of your motor vehicle stop
  • Whether there was probable cause for your arrest

The other main reason you might decide to go to trial is if the plea bargain the government offers you isn't very favorable. In that case, your defense attorney might recommend taking your chances and proceeding with a trial. A trial might result in a better outcome, such as a lesser sentence. Read about comparing state DUI laws to learn more about your particular state's laws.

Choosing a Jury

Except for rare cases that are heard only by a judge, one of the first steps in any criminal trial is selection of a jury. During jury selection, the judge, along with the plaintiff and the defendant through their respective attorneys, will question a pool of potential jurors both in general and regarding matters about the particular case. This includes personal ideological predispositions or life experiences about the case. Based on responses to questioning, the judge can excuse potential jurors at this stage.

Also at this stage, both the defense and the prosecution may exclude a certain number of jurors. This is done using peremptory challenges and for cause. A peremptory challenge excludes a juror for any non-discriminatory reason. A challenge for cause excludes a juror who has shown that they can't be objective in deciding the case. Below are some examples:

  • After Juror A answers "yes" when asked whether they believe "street" drugs should be legalized, the prosecution can most likely exclude them for cause from the pool of jurors in a drug possession case, as they have indicated a bias against drug laws.
  • The defense can use a peremptory challenge to exclude Juror B from the jury pool in a case where a police officer is an assault victim after it is learned that the juror has two brothers who are police officers. Even if Juror B states they can remain objective in their assessment of the case, the defense may excuse them without declaring any grounds for doing so.

Opening Statements

Once a jury is selected, the first dialogue at trial comes in the form of two opening statements. One of these comes from the prosecutor on behalf of the government, and the other comes from the defense. No witnesses testify at this stage, and no physical evidence is typically utilized.

The government has the burden of proof regarding the defendant's guilt. Therefore, the prosecutor's opening statement is given first and often more detailed than the defense's. In some cases, the defense may wait until the conclusion of the government's main case before making its opening statement. Regardless of when opening remarks are made, during those statements:

  • The prosecutor presents the facts of the case, from the government's perspective, and walks the jury through what the government will try to prove. This includes what the defendant did, how, and why.
  • The defense gives the jury its interpretation of the facts and sets the stage for countering key government evidence and presenting any legal defenses to the charged crimes.

Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination of Witnesses

At the heart of any criminal trial, including a DUI trial, is the case-in-chief. This is the stage at which each side presents its key evidence to the jury.

In its case-in-chief, the government sets forth evidence to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. At this point, the prosecutor calls eyewitnesses and experts to testify. The prosecutor may also introduce physical evidence, such as photographs, documents, and medical reports.

Whether the government or the defense calls a witness, the witness testimony process usually adheres to the following timeline:

  • The witness is called to the stand and is sworn in, taking an oath to tell the truth.
  • The party who called the witness to the stand questions the witness through direct examination, eliciting information from the witness through a question-and-answer process to strengthen the party's position in the case.
  • After direct examination, the opposing party has an opportunity to question the witness through cross-examination. The opposing party attempts to poke holes in the witness's story, attack their credibility, or otherwise discredit the witness and their testimony.
  • After cross-examination, the side that originally called the witness has a second opportunity to ask the witness questions. This is called redirect examination, the purpose of which is to remedy any damaging effects of cross-examination.

After the government concludes its case-in-chief, the defense can present its own evidence similarly. Sometimes, the defense may choose not to offer a case-in-chief. Instead, the defense may decide to make its key points through cross-examination of the government's witnesses and challenges to the government's evidence.

Once the prosecution and defense have had an opportunity to present their case and challenge the evidence presented by the other, both sides rest. That means no more evidence will be presented to the jury before closing arguments happen.

Closing Arguments

Similar to the opening statement, the closing argument offers the government and defense a chance to sum up the case. During closing arguments, there's a recapping of the evidence in a light favorable to each party's respective positions. This is the final chance for the parties to address the jury prior to deliberations. 

In closing arguments, the government seeks to show why the evidence requires the jury to find the defendant guilty. In turn, the defense tries to show that the government has fallen short of its burden of proof so that the jury finds the defendant not guilty.

Jury Instructions

After both sides of the case have had a chance to present their evidence and make a closing argument, the next step toward a verdict is the jury's instruction. In this process, the judge gives the jury the legal standards to decide whether the defendant is guilty.

The judge decides what legal standards apply to the defendant's case, based on the criminal charges and the evidence presented during the trial. Often, this process takes place with input and argument from the prosecution and defense. 

The judge then instructs the jury on those relevant legal principles, including findings the jury must make to arrive at certain conclusions. The judge also describes critical concepts, such as "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," and defines any crimes the jury may consider, based on the evidence presented at trial.

For example, if you're charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, the judge may:

  • Define the elements of a DUI, the charged crime
  • Define the elements of related crimes, such as operating while impaired (OWI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI)
  • Set out the findings the jury needs to make to convict you of each of those crimes

The case then goes to the jury.

Jury Deliberation and Verdict

After getting instructions from the judge, the jurors consider the case through a process called deliberation. During deliberations, the jury attempts to agree on whether or not you're guilty of the charged crimes.

Deliberation is the first opportunity for the jury to discuss the case. Deliberations in a DUI case don't usually last long, often only an hour or two. Once the jury reaches a verdict, the jury foreperson informs the judge. After that, the judge usually announces the verdict in open court.

Most states require that a jury in a criminal case, including a DUI case, be unanimous in finding a defendant guilty or not guilty. In those states, the judge may declare a mistrial if the jury fails to reach a unanimous verdict and finds itself at a standstill, also referred to as a hung jury. In that case, the case may be dismissed or the trial may start over again from the jury selection stage.

Get Help With Your DUI Offense From a Defense Lawyer

Are you facing drunk driving charges after a DUI arrest, or another criminal offense due to exceeding the legal limit of an intoxicant? It's usually a good idea to consult with a DUI defense attorney if you're dealing with an impaired driving or DUI charge, regardless of whether this is your first offense or you're a repeat offender.

A DUI conviction, whether a misdemeanor or felony, carries serious consequences. Contact a local DUI attorney for help with your DUI defense today. A DUI lawyer can help you avoid jail time or a lengthy driver's license suspension, crafting a strong criminal defense and challenging things like how field sobriety tests were conducted by a law enforcement officer to determine your impairment.

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