Every DUI case in Florida is really two cases in one. It is:
1. A criminal case--heard in front of a criminal court with a judge and a jury, and
2. An administrative law case to determine whether your drivers license is suspended--heard in front of an administrative hearing officer of the Department of Motor Vehicles, Division of Drivers Licenses.
The Criminal Case
Normally, your first court appearance in the criminal case is called (appropriately enough) the "First Appearance." It occurs within the first 24 hours after your arrest, if you haven't been released on bond by that time.
The next appearance is the Arraignment. It normally occurs about one month after your arrest, and is mandatory, unless your lawyer has waived it. At the arraignment, you will asked to enter a plea of "Guilty", "Not Guilty" or "No Contest." Unless your lawyer has a good reason otherwise, you should always plead Not Guilty at arraignment. If you plead Not Guilty, your case will be set for a pretrial conference a few weeks later.
The Pretrial Conference is a hearing where the prosecutor may confer with your lawyer about scheduling and other housekeeping details of the case. Often, your lawyer will also discuss possible "plea bargains" with the prosecutor at this conference, and may also discuss possible claims that your rights were violated by an illegal arrest or a defect in the alcohol testing procedures.
If your lawyer believes that your rights might have been violated, the case may be set for a Suppression Hearing. At this hearing, evidence may be taken as to why the police stopped you, or whether the testing procedures were proper.
If no acceptable plea bargain is offered, the case will be set for trial. Normally in the week before trial, a Docket Sounding will be held. This is another scheduling hearing, and with most judges it is mandatory that you attend. With many judges, the docket sounding is your last chance to enter an agreed plea, where the sentence is explicitly agreed in advance.
If you go to trial on your DUI case, it will ordinarily be a Jury Trial. In a jury trial, six citizens decide whether the state has proved you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury trial is an extremely complex process, which requires a tremendous amount of planning and preparation. But it is worth it, since a DUI conviction will have consequences for the rest of your life.
The Administrative Process
If you refused your breath test, or if you took the test and tested higher than .08, your license is automatically suspended by the Department of Motor Vehicles. You may drive for ten days after your arrest, but in order to keep your temporary driving privileges, you must request a Formal Administrative Hearing within ten days after your arrest. At this hearing, your lawyer may argue that your arrest was improper, or that you didn't really refuse the breath test.
If the hearing officer upholds the suspension of your license, then you cannot get a hardship license for at least thirty days (on a first offense DUI). If the hearing officer overturns the suspension, your license may be returned to you immediately (although the trial judge gets another chance to suspend it if you are convicted in the court proceedings.)
You have only ten days to request this hearing, so you must act quickly to get a lawyer as soon as possible after your arrest.
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