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Is There Any Leniency in a DUI Trial for a First-Time Offense



A DUI arrest is a scary experience. The traffic stop that leads to a DUI charge can produce anxiety. Fines, penalties, and sentences are often harsh, especially in zero-tolerance jurisdictions with severe drunk driving laws. A DUI trial and conviction can be equally frightening. A DUI trial often spans one to three days in court. Incidentally, most defendants opt for jury trials instead of bench trials with a judge presiding and making ultimate case decisions. First-time offenders are easily among the most anxious participating in the process and proceedings.

First-time DUI arrestees may wonder whether there is any leniency extended if their criminal records are previously blemish-free. Perhaps, but there are certainly no guarantees. The answer depends on several factors:

  • state where the DUI arrest occurred
  • state's drunk driving laws
  • attorneys involved (prosecutor and any defense counsel)
  • presiding judge
  • any jury empanelled
  • facts surrounding the traffic stop
  • presence and severity of any injuries and property damage, among other factors

Some States Forbid Judicial Leniency Toward First-Time DUI Offenders

In an effort to curb loss of life, injuries, and property damage associated with increasing numbers of DUI offenses, many state legislatures have passed more stringent drunk driving laws. Some states' laws forbid judges from extending leniency during sentencing phases of DUI trials. This is true even for first-time DUI offenders and for those whose DUI arrests do not involve crash damages. In non-DUI cases, on the other hand, judges can be more lenient to first-time offenders, especially young people, and may withhold formal adjudication and convictions. Further, all offenders found guilty at the conclusion of their DUI trials or who plead no contest to DUI charges must receive a conviction that lasts a full lifetime. This means a DUI conviction cannot be removed by expungement or record-sealing procedures.

Should a First-Time DUI Offender Throw in the Towel?

Absolutely not. A criminal defense attorney with experience in defending DUI charges can possibly help and best leverage a defendants status as a first-time offender and previously pristine criminal record. It may be possible for defense counsel to exercise early intervention techniques with the prosecutor, which may avoid the filing of formal charges against a driver. In other cases, "pre-filing" work can translate into the prosecutor bringing a lesser offense against the driver. First-time offender status can give defense counsel fuel for argument in making such pitches.

The jurisdiction may have diversion programs for those with no prior criminal offenses. Counsel must usually submit a written application to the state attorney general's office for a client to receive entry into such a program. Admission depends on mitigating factors and first-time offender status can only help make such a case. If offered, drug court may provide another court-ordered alternative for non-violent offenders whose charges stem from a drug or alcohol addiction. Drug court can help a defendant avoid a jail sentence and formal conviction.

First-time offender status can be used by defense counsel to the advantage of the arrestee in plea bargaining negotiations. In some jurisdictions, there may an opportunity to posture a case for record sealing or expungement. First-time offender status is beneficial in those instances.