One question we always get about DUI first offense trials is, “What’s going to happen to me?”
Many folks often remark, “I’ve seen what it’s like on TV, but…” Even they know it’s not like TV. On TV, an hour-long trial drama may only contain 15 minutes of a trial; in real life, a trial could take weeks.
Relax: your DUI first offense trial will probably take no more than a day, depending on its complexity. Hopefully you’ll have a very good idea how the trial will go because you’ll bring an experienced DUI defense lawyer with you. Remember, the State will have its own legal expert: an Assistant Solicitor, South Carolina’s name for assistant district attorney. If you handle your case yourself, the judge won’t cut you any breaks for not being a lawyer, just like no one in the NFL is soft on rookies.
Here’s how a Spartanburg DUI first offense trial works, along with a few tidbits about how our team handles them. First, remember you’re in Magistrate’s Court, which handles cases differently than the more serious cases in General Sessions Court. Repeat DUI offenders are tried in General Sessions Court.
Magistrate’s Court juries generally consist of six jurors, not 12, and one alternate in case someone can’t finish the trial. Jurors are picked by having their number called, then each party gets to decide whether they want them on the case.
At Holland & Usry, we often refer to jury selection as jury de-selection; our goal is to reject potential jurors who we think might be inclined to favor the prosecution. You can reject up to five jurors for any reason. When you arrive at court that day, there is typically a list of jurors containing their names and addresses, maybe where they work, and some background information compiled by the Court that might help you make a decision whether you want them on your jury. We review this information to single out the ones we feel would be most likely to convict, such as victims of DUI crashes, those who are morally opposed to alcohol, etc. We try to reject them.
Once the jury is picked, we move to the next phase: motions.
Many DUI trials are won or lost here. We use motions to try to get the case dismissed before trial or have key evidence thrown out. The law involved and finding the facts to justify the motions can get really complex. For example, we often make motions based on violations of South Carolina’s law requiring officers to video DUI arrests and breath tests. Finding the violations requires a trained eye and knowledge of the many cases covering these violations. And if your case involves a blood or urine test, you may have highly technical defenses requiring knowledge of very complicated law that could win your case before a jury ever hears it.
If the case is not dismissed or worked out because so much evidence gets thrown out, the actual trial starts with opening statements.
Basically, opening statements introduce the jury to each side’s case. The State tells jurors what it expects to prove. The defense assures the jury that the State won’t be able to prove you guilty. In doing so, we always remind the jury of the fundamental principle of American criminal law: to convict, the State must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to all jurors.
After that, testimony starts.
The State puts its case up first, because the prosecution has the obligation to prove you are guilty. It has to show its complete hand—all the evidence, all the witness testimony—right at the start. In contrast, you, the defendant, don’t have to present any evidence. As defense attorneys, we often don’t present evidence, relying on the State’s lack of proof to win the case.
Here are the major witnesses who may testify:
- The arresting officer. He’ll testify about stopping you for bad driving, his interaction with you, the field sobriety tests, and your breath test or refusal plus any other tests. He’ll also highlight any incriminating statements you made. At some point, the State will play the video of your arrest and breath test.
- The breath test operator, if the test was given by an officer other than the arresting officer. Usually it’s the same officer.
- “Chain of custody” witnesses. These witnesses will be called to testify if there were blood or urine tests performed. For these tests, the State must prove who handled it before testing and present the analyst who did the testing.
- Other witnesses. Rarely, the State presents witnesses who saw you driving and contacted law enforcement.
You have the right to cross-examine all these witnesses. The goal is to neutralize bad facts, highlight good facts, destroy the reliability of field sobriety tests, and where there’s a breath result, destroy the reliability of the breath test machine. Effective cross-examination takes a trained, experienced DUI defense lawyer.
The Defense’s Case
The defense gets to present its evidence and testimony after the State has its turn.
Often, we present no evidence because the State just can’t prove its case. You are never required to testify and the jurors should be instructed by the judge they can’t hold your decision to not testify against you. In most cases, you’ve already testified by the way you conducted yourself on those videos. Sometimes other witnesses can help you, like the passenger who rode with you who might describe how you were not under the influence, drove just fine, or offer an innocent explanation for the bad driving.
After all the evidence is in, the State and defense present closing arguments.
Here, the State and defense explain how the evidence shows they should win. The State goes first, then the defense. If the defense presents testimony, the State gets to go one more time at the end—another reason to consider not putting up any evidence.
Then it’s in the jury’s hands.
To convict, all jurors must agree the State proved you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If not, they should acquit, but sometimes juries deadlock—they can’t all agree. At that point, the judge may tell them to try to work together to arrive at a verdict. If they just can’t, the judge declares a mistrial, requiring a retrial before a different jury.
Spartanburg DUI first offense trials can be very frightening for the suspect. If you’re contesting one of these cases, it’s in your best interest—at the very minimum—to talk with an experienced DUI defense lawyer who knows the law and how to use the facts to convince a jury the State didn’t prove its case.
Feel free to contact us in the way most convenient to you, by phone toll-free at 888-230-1841, or by email or live chat from our site. If you have any other questions about DUI cases, feel free to download our free report on the subject.