Do You Need a Drunk Driving Attorney If You Get a DUI?

Pros and cons of hiring an attorney to plead your case

Handcuffed Man
Will Getting an DUI Attorney Help?. © Getty Images

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 if 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. 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." There is a chance that an attorney can help you, then again, there is a chance they cannot.

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, which measures at 0.08 or above by breath test or blood test, you can be found guilty of DUI.

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.

It does not matter if you have an attorney or not, you will lose your license, you will be fined, your insurance will go up, and you will be convicted.

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.

Your License May Be Suspended Lawyer or Not

As of April 2017, 41 states (Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee are the exceptions) have passed administrative license suspension 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, completely independent from criminal court proceedings. The reason is since a state can give you your driving privileges, the state can take a privilege away.

In those nine states that do not have administrative license suspension laws, your license is not suspended until you go to court, but it is suspended if you plead guilty or are convicted.

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 cause you to receive 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 some cases, hiring an attorney may not help much, if at all, in the long run.

You can take the Drunk Driving Enhancements Quiz to determine if there are aggravating circumstances in your case.

Obvious Circumstance Where You Should Hire an Attorney

In the event that you are truly innocent, such as your were not drinking at all, but failed the field sobriety test or the breath test, then if you can, hire an attorney. You will need one. Do not try to represent yourself if you plan to argue your innocence, you should 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 any 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 he knows you will eventually have to go through anyway. But you can do so prior to sentencing so that your driving privileges will be restored as quickly as possible.

The 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 baffled by the entire process, an attorney can walk you through the steps and make things go as smoothly as possible.

But, if you are strapped for cash and all the fines and expenses of a drunk driving conviction are going to be a financial burden for you, hiring an attorney may not really change the outcome of your case in any meaningful way. In most cases, a lawyer represents just another bill you will have to pay.

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