Can a Prior DWI Conviction Be Used Against You?
Prior convictions for DUI can enhance your sentence.
Prior DWIs may turn a misdemeanor into a felony.
If this is not your first experience with the DUI justice system, and you have in your past one or more previous arrests or prior DWI conviction, then you may be in grave danger of having your case and potential penalty complicated.
Depending on the state, prior DUI convictions can turn a simple DUI case into one where the defendant is exposed to substantial jail, or even prison time. The existence of prior convictions can cause an arrest to turn into a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, prosecution.
Since the way that prior cases are used against you varies from state to state, we suggest using the state links to your right to research the law as it applies to you. We also recommend contacting a good local DUI lawyer where your case is located to discuss your specific history and the facts of your current DUI case.
Does the state have to prove the existence of the prior conviction?
The answer to this question depends on the state and the circumstances. Typically, if you are not willing to admit that you have the prior conviction, the state will need to offer some proof that it actually existed. If your prior case or cases were in another state, it may prove difficult for the state to do so in your DWI case.
Will a jury hear about the existence of your prior case?
It depends on the circumstances. For example, if the existence of a threshold number or prior convictions is an element of the felony DUI charge (usually 2 or 3 prior convictions within anywhere from 5 to 10 years), then typically the jury would have to decide whether those convictions were valid. In this type of case, there is a strong probability that the existence of prior convictions would, in itself, convince a jury that you are probably guilty of the current offense.
In other cases, for example where the existence of the prior conviction is not part of the crime, but rather is a sentence enhancer, the jury will typically not hear about it during the guilt phase of the trial. If you are found guilty of the current DUI, then depending on the jurisdiction, either the judge or the jury would then be asked to decide whether the prior case(s) were valid.
Is there an advantage to admitting the prior?
Potentially. If the prior DUI or DWI conviction is a part of the crime, a defense lawyer may be able to get the judge and prosecutor to agree to keep that information from the jury if you stipulate that it exists. Theoretically, if it is an already agreed-upon point, there is nothing for the jury to decide on that matter. The existence of the prior then is not relevant.
If the prior is a sentence enhancer and you are found guilty, and if it appears that the state will be able to easily prove your priors, it may make sense to admit them in order to best position yourself to argue at sentencing that you have taken responsibility for your actions. If you have denied the current charge, and you deny the existence of the priors, and the court finds them both to be valid and proven, it makes you look bad and can potentially result in a longer sentence. Check with your lawyer before making any decisions about this and every other aspect of your DUI case.