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California DUI Law

If you're convicted of a Driving Under the Influence ("DUI") charge in California, your punishment depends on whether you:

  • Have a prior DUI conviction
  • Had a child under 14 in the care with you
  • Have a blood alcohol testing over .20
  • Refused to take a blood-alcohol test

First-time offenders charged under a misdemeanor law (one not involving injuries) can be sentenced to jail (but not prison) and fined up to $1,000. First-time offenders convicted of a felony (where someone other than yourself was injured or killed) can be sentenced to prison and fined more than $1,000. You may also be required to install an ignition interlock device which prevents your car from starting if the driver has alcohol in his or her system.

Second (occurring within 7 years of the first) offenses are dealt with more harshly, with a minimum of ten days' jail time and fines up to $10,000. In addition, you can lose your driver's license for as long as three years.

Because the potential consequences of being convicted of a DUI are so high, it makes sense to contact a local California criminal defense lawyer who specializes in DUI cases as soon as possible after being charged.

Driving Observation Defenses

The DUI prosecutor always relies (sometimes exclusively) on the arresting police officer's testimony about how a DUI suspect was driving, including:

  • Very slow speeds
  • Uneven speeds (very fast, then very slow, for example)
  • Weaving from one side of a lane to the other
  • Crossing the center line of the highway
  • Running a red light
  • Hesitation in going through a green light

A good defense attorney will argue that there are many different explanations for these driving behaviors that don't have anything to do with being alcohol-impaired.

Behavior Observation Defenses

A California police officer may also testify as to a DUI suspect's appearance and behavior when questioned, including:

  • Slurred speech
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Inappropriate joking or incoherent speech
  • Stumbling or not being able to walk very far
  • Pupil enlargement

Defenses to these observations that don't have anything to do with being intoxicated may include:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Allergies
  • Contact lenses
  • Stress due to personal circumstances
  • Medications
  • Foods recently ingested
  • Nervousness over being stopped by police
  • Physical impairments

Field Sobriety Test Defenses

When an officer suspects you may be too intoxicated to drive, he or she will likely ask you to perform what are called "field sobriety tests." These tests are designed to assess your physical and mental alertness, and can include:

  • Walking a straight line
  • Walking backwards
  • Reciting the alphabet, frontwards or backwards
  • Standing on one leg

Officers also sometimes rely on what's called a "nystagmus" test, in which the suspect is asked to shift eye gaze from one side to the other while the officer shines a light in his or her eyes. The theory is that the gaze of someone who is impaired by alcohol or drugs will be jerky rather than smooth.

The defenses to field sobriety tests are often the same as with officer observations. Medications and lack of sleep can make it considerably more difficult to perform these tests. Many people also have physical impairments caused by injuries - or simply aging -that make it impossible to perform these tasks under ideal conditions.

Blood Alcohol Content Defenses

When you consume alcoholic drinks, the alcohol is absorbed into your blood stream. The level of alcohol in your blood, called the Blood Alcohol Content ("BAC") can be measured by different tests.

In California, you're presumed to be drunk and unable to safely operate a vehicle if your BAC is .08 or greater. If you're under 21, you're presumed legally drunk with a BAC over .05.

Under California's implied consent law, you're required to submit to a chemical alcohol test when requested by a police officer. If you refuse, you face a driver's license suspension and may still be convicted for DUI and refusing to take the test. If you refuse a chemical test and are later convicted of DUI, you'll receive all possible penalties and lose the possibility of probation.

Most DUI suspects have their blood tested by blowing into a breath testing device. These devices can be faulty and not well-maintained or properly calibrated. They can register false results based on your consumption of food and other non-harmful substances other than alcohol or drugs.

Your attorney will likely subpoena police records on how the breath testing machine operates and was maintained and calibrated. Your lawyer may also want to bring in expert testimony that the particular breath testing machine the officer used is notorious for malfunctioning.

Another defense to breath testing machines arises when the physical breath tests aren't preserved as evidence, allowing for independent testing later. Your attorney can argue that there's no way to know if the machine that was used was accurate, if your breath samples can't be independently tested.

Many of the defenses against DUI charges require a lawyer's expertise and experience. If you've been charged with DUI, it's important to contact an experienced California DUI lawyer right away.

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