When I refer to an “initial appearance” in this article, the term is used in the broad sense to mean the first time you are in court on a DUI/DWI charge.
That first time may come the morning after your arrest if you are held in jail overnight. In other cases, it may be your arraignment after a police officer released you after your arrest. The arraignment could be the next day, or it could be months later. It is also possible that the first time you have to appear in court is in answer to a felony summons after an indictment.
About DUI Court Appearances
Each state, county, city and court have their own procedures for DUI initial appearances, so this article covers the subject with broad strokes. For specific information about what to expect the first time you go do DUI court, be sure to review the information about the state of your arrest on this site, and to contact a local DUI lawyer who practices in the county and court in which your case will be heard.
As a general starting point, initial appearances are designed to inform you of how serious the charges are. In every state in the U.S., an impaired driving charge is serious, and in the vast majority even a first offense is a crime with potential or mandatory jail time.
As a rule of thumb, take the initial appearance very seriously. If at all possible, make sure that you have an attorney representing you. Some prosecutor’s offices offer the best plea bargains during the first court date. It is essential to have an attorney representing your best interests so you can 1) get the best deal possible on the table; and 2) properly evaluate the deal to determine if you should accept or reject it.
When you go to your first court date, be sure to dress like you take it seriously. The judge may evaluate you to make a determination of whether to set bail or require you to report to a probation department while you case is pending. The better dressed you are, the more the judge will think you are taking the charges seriously. The more seriously you are taking them, the less likely in most judges minds will be the chance of you fleeing or committing a crime while on release if they allow you to walk out of the court without bail.
Answering to DUI Charges
You may be required to stand up and answer to the charges. If you have a lawyer, typically the attorney will do most of the speaking for you. The judge may read the charges against you and ask you how you plead. Typically it is not a good idea to plead guilty right away, but there are certain exceptions to this rule.
Some courts set a defined schedule that your entire case will follow. In those courts, you will know when all of your court dates are including a trial, should it come to that. In other courts, you will be given only the next court date. In nearly every county in the country you will be required to sign a promise to appear at your next court date.
As part of your obligations between the first and second court appearance, some courts may require you to attend AA meetings, get an ignition interlock device in your vehicle, wear a SCRAM device or check in with a probation officer. A DUI lawyer can be very effective in helping you avoid or minimize these requirements. Some courts may also restrict your travel or require you to get special permission every time you leave the state or the country until your case is finished.
About the Prosecution
In a few courts the court will even outline the whole discovery process where you will get information from the prosecutor’s office about the evidence that they have against you. It is essential to know what to ask for because if you don’t, you may not receive something that could help your case. Experienced DUI lawyers typically have an exhaustive checklist of things to request. The initial appearance is sometimes the first formal opportunity your lawyer will have to ask the judge to order to prosecutor to preserve evidence for independent testing and assert other important rights.
In some courts, if you want a jury trial rather than a judge trial, you must tell the Court at the first court appearance. If you don’t, you could lose your right to have a jury (which is often very beneficial to you to have). So if you have to go into your court date without a lawyer, make sure you know what the local rules are in regards to jury trial requests.