Do You Need a Drunk Driving Attorney?

Will It Help, Or Be Just Another Expense?

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

You, of course, have a right to an attorney in a drunk driving case, just as you do in any court proceeding, but the question is in this day and time will hiring a DUI lawyer really help or merely end up being another in a long line of expenses.

Even if this is your first drunk driving offense, or your first brush with the law for any reason, it's going to be an expensive process. The decision you have to make is whether or not you can afford even more expense by hiring an attorney who specializes in drunk driving cases.

Do You 'Need' an Attorney?

Naturally, attorneys are going to tell you that you "need" to hire an attorney who focuses on defending drunk drivers. DUI (driving under the influence) is a "serious offense" that could affect your future and employment, they will tell you, and that is true.

As one of the websites that promote drunk driving attorneys says, "Choosing the right DUI lawyer may help you save your driver's license and get your drunk driving charge reduced or even dismissed." The key word there is "may" - they may be able to help and they may not either.

Think about it. If hiring a high-priced DUI attorney won't keep Hollywood movie stars out of trouble, why would it work for you?

Drunk Driving Laws Have Changed

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 adjudicated.

What the per se laws say is, in every state in the U.S., if your blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.08 or above by breath test or blood test, you are in fact guilty of driving while intoxicated. It doesn't 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.

Your License Will Be Suspended

Meanwhile, 41 states have now 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.

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

These new laws allow your driver's license to be suspended as an administrative sanction, completely independent from the criminal court proceedings. The state gives you your driving privileges and the state can take them away. If you are driving with a blood-alcohol level above 0.08, the state will immediately take your license in every state but Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee (as of February 2010).

In those nine states, your license is not suspended until you go to court, but it is suspended if you plea guilty or are convicted.

What Was Your BAC Level?

According to one drunk driving attorney website, if you were arrested for DUI, "You could lose your driver's license, be placed in jail and fined substantial fees. Your car insurance rates may rise and you could end up with a criminal conviction on your record that could impact your future and your employment opportunities."

In all 50 states, there is no "may" and "could" about it. If your blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit, 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.

Where There Any Aggravating Circumstances?

There are other factors that could cause you to receive an enhanced sentence, such as, if you have prior offenses, did you cause damage to property, did you injure anyone, endanger a child, etc. You can take the Drunk Driving Enhancements Quiz to determine if there are aggravating circumstances in your case.

If there are, an attorney may be able to help mitigate some of those factors, but in many states even those sentence enhancements have been made mandatory for some factors - such as for repeat offenders - so hiring at attorney may not help much, if at all, in the long run.

What a Drunk Driving Attorney Can Do

If you are truly innocent - your were not drinking at all, but failed the field sobriety test or the breath test - then by all means, hire an attorney. You are going to need one. Don't try to represent yourself if you plan to argue your innocence, seek legal counsel.

But other than that, 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 and even completing some of those requirements prior to your court appearance.

Getting Insurance, Paying Fees

For example, you attorney may help you obtain SR-22 auto insurance and file the proper forms with the department of motor vehicles. Your attorney also 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 easily afford to pay a DUI lawyer's fees, by all means, hire the best attorney you can find. If this is you 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, fees 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, and quite possibly, in most states become just another bill you will have to pay.

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