Being charged with a DUI/DWI in Pennsylvania can be devastating. Many people don’t envision themselves as criminals, and then, one day, they use bad judgement and wind up in criminal court with a DUI. If you are, you’ll be prosecuted under the Vehicle Code (Title 35) in Pa, in whichever county the incident occurred in. Although state law on DUIs is uniform to the whole state, punishments and treatment alternatives vary widely in different counties. For example, in Berks County, people charged with 2nd offense DUIs may be eligible for the STOP program. In contrast, Lehigh County has no such program for 2nd offenses, but it does have a general formula for how 2nd offenses are handled. In addition, in Lehigh County, intermediate punishment (house arrest) is an option for a 1st offense DUI when the person is not eligible for ARD (if a minor in the car, a major accident, or other reasons). In Berks County, there’s no intermediate punishment (house arrest) for 1st offenses, so if you’re in Berks County and the District Attorney rejects you for ARD on a 1st offense, there would be a prison sentencing (unless you are in the lowest tier for DUI).
If you have a DUI case, and you want to have a lawyer, it’s imperative that you find a criminal defense attorney. Do NOT just use your family attorney who handled your will, a divorce, or other unrelated issues. When people come to me seeking an attorney to handle a tax problem with the IRS, or a car accident lawsuit, I tell them, “absolutely not, I’m not qualified to handle that for you” and I refer the person to an attorney who practices that kind of law. The same is true in the reverse. If you ask your family attorney to handle a criminal case, that’s a mistake. And with DUIs, it’s even more specific. Many criminal defense attorneys have never had a trial in a DUI case. This means they have no meaningful experience defending a DUI case. So when you have a DUI case, look first for a criminal defense attorney, and then specifically ask the lawyer how many DUI trials he or she has had. I have a list of all the trials I’ve had, including DUI trials and I can provide to anyone who asks.
Generally when hiring an attorney for a DUI case, he or she will want to know how many DUIs you’ve had in your lifetime (in every jurisdiction), how many in the past 10 years, what your overall criminal record looks like (if any), including your juvenile record even if you think something was expunged, your age, marital and family status, your work and school background, history of any drug or alcohol usage and treatment, and several other factors. Then, in terms of the DUI case pending, he or she would want to know which police officer and department was involved (in my opinion, this matters greatly), whether there was a traffic accident, and whether anyone was injured, what your blood alcohol level was (if you provided your blood), whether any drugs/controlled substances were detected in your system, whether there were children in the car, what your past driver record looks like and whether your driver’s license was valid at the time of this incident, whether police detained you lawfully, whether there is a recording of you at the DUI processing center, and many other factors.
For people who are seeking to work out a “deal” in their cases, the biggest hindrance they face is often the driver license suspension. PennDOT automatically suspends the driver license or driving privileges in Pennsylvania upon notification from a criminal court that a person has a conviction (or ARD) for a DUI. The length of suspension is controlled by the blood alcohol level or presence of drugs in the system—which dictates which tier of DUI—along with what order of DUI it is (e.g. 1st offense, 2nd offense, etc), and a few other factors. There is really no negotiating with PennDOT on the license suspension so it’s very important to recognize that in trying to control the license suspension, you must attempt to negotiate the type of DUI charge you face on the front end. That negotiation typically takes place with the police officer in your case and later with the District Attorney. Consequently, it’s very important to have an attorney with you from the beginning—not just because the attorney knows the law—but also because a more experienced criminal defense attorney has developed relationships with magistrates, police officers, district attorneys, probations officers, and judges. Irrespective of whether the attorney has a good or bad relationship with the other persons in the case, an experienced defense attorney is familiar with the viewpoints of certain police departments, understands the human personalities of the players involved, and knows which arguments will be more persuasive.
If you are charged with a DUI and you think it’s a “done deal,” think again. There is almost always room for negotiation any many options available if you get the right attorney on your side very early in the case.