DUI Defense Frequently Asked Questions
1. I have just been charged with DUI in Lehigh County. What can happen to me now?
Your case will be processed through the Lehigh County Courts, starting with bail being set by a Magisterial District Judge and then a preliminary hearing being held also before a Magisterial District Judge. Assuming that the prosecution establishes a prima facie case, you will then be given an arraignment date, and ultimately a trial date in the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County.
If you are convicted of, or plead guilty to DUI, you can be sentenced to up to five years imprisonment, lose your license up to three years, and pay up to $10,000 in fines. The length of your jail sentence and license suspension, and the amount of fines, depend on your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the existence of any prior DUI convictions, and whether there was a crash with either personal injuries or property damage.
2. What happens at the preliminary hearing?
The preliminary hearing is conducted to determine whether the prosecution (the district attorney) has enough evidence to make out the elements of the crimes that you have been charged with. The burden that the prosecution has is sometimes called a “prima facie” case. Because of the relatively light burden, the prosecution is often successful at the preliminary hearing. However, it is important that your lawyer put the prosecution to the test of making out the prima facie case. The preliminary hearing is also important to you for it is the first time that you and your attorney have to see at least some of the evidence that the prosecution has against you and to hear from at least some of their witnesses and to cross examine those witnesses. This “discovery” allows you to prepare your defense.
If the Magistrate District Judge finds that the prosecution has successfully established a prima facie case at the preliminary hearing, your case will be “bound over” to be processed in the Court of Common Pleas. For Lehigh County DUI cases, the Court of Common Pleas is located in Allentown.
3. What happens to my case after it is bound over for processing in the Court of Common Pleas?
The next formal step is that you will receive notice of an arraignment. The arraignment is held between 30 and 60 days following the preliminary hearing. The purpose of the arraignment is to formally notify you of the charges against you and for you to enter a plea. In Lehigh County, if the case is not resolved by plea or ARD at the arraignment, it will be relisted for a status conference where all pretrial motions will be heard. These pretrial motions may include discovery motions, motions to suppress evidence, or other motions contained in an “Omnibus Pretrial Motion.” Once all pretrial motions are heard you will be given a trial date, which is usually 30 days after the status conference.
4. Can you explain what ARD is and what is needed to qualify?
Accelerate Rehabilitative Disposition, or ARD, is a pretrial diversionary program which a defendant charged with DUI may qualify. The purpose of ARD from the government’s perspective is rehabilitation of the offender and a prompt disposition of the charges.
Acceptance into the ARD program is not automatic, regardless of the circumstances. It requires that the district attorney, usually at the request of the lawyer for the DUI offender, make a motion to the judge that the case be considered for ARD. A hearing is then held in open court where the defendant, the defendant’s attorney, the district attorney, and any victims attend.
If the DUI offender is accepted into the ARD program, and he or she satisfactorily completes the program, the charges can be dismissed and the arrest record expunged. Conditions of the ARD program may include making restitution, license suspensions, completing substance abuse treatment and community service. Costs of the ARD program will also be assessed on the DUI offender.
Although ARD is often a very good resolution to the charges against a DUI offender, you can choose not to participate in it. For instance, you may decide not to enter ARD when the evidence against you is very weak and there is a substantial likelihood that you will be found not guilty.
5. What are the benefits to the ARD program?
There are generally 3 significant benefits to a DUI offender who is admitted into the ARD program:
- 1. The offender will not go to jail.
- 2. The license suspension will be significantly reduced, up to a maximum of 60 days, depending on the BAC of the driver. If the offender is a minor, the license suspension is 90 days.
- 3. In Lehigh County, upon successful completion of the ARD conditions the case will be dismissed and the record of the case may be expunged.
Though an attorney can file for expungement of the ARD case, Lehigh County has the instructions and form for the motion on its website. PennDOT is the only agency that may retain the ARD records, though they must also expunge their records after ten years.
6. If I do not enter ARD, what happens next?
In Lehigh County, the District Attorney negotiates with your DUI attorney a potential plea to the charges against you. These negotiations will begin at the arraignment and continue up to the date of your trial. If you do not agree to the terms of the plea offer, the court will hold a trial.
7. What happens if the police conducted an illegal arrest or improper search and seizure?
If you believe the police violated your constitutional rights, you may file a Motion to Suppress Evidence, which, if granted by the court, will result in the prosecution not being able to use the improperly obtained evidence in its case against you.
8. What happens at my DUI trial?
On the date of your trial, you will be given the opportunity of having either a jury trial (that is, a trial before usually 12 members of the community), a non-jury trial (that is, having a trial before a judge only), or you can decide to plead guilty. Only DUI charges with a potential jail sentence exceeding 6 months may be tried by a jury. Therefore, if this is your first DUI within the last 10 years, you do not have the right to a trial by jury, as first offense DUIs are only punishable by up to 6 months in jail.
9. What happens if I am found guilty or plead guilty?
The court will order a pre-sentence report from the Department of Probation which will comment on the various factors that will bear on your possible sentence. The court will then sentence you. The sentence, depending on the circumstances, can include jail time, in-home detention, community service, alcohol classes and fines. In addition, any conviction will result in a minimum driver’s license suspension of one year.
10. Do I need a lawyer?
Yes! A DUI charge is serious and, if not disposed of properly, may follow you for the rest of your life. The law is complex, and the court procedures can be difficult to understand for anyone who’s not properly trained.
The lawyer you hire should have significant experience in representing people charged with DUIs in Lehigh County. The lawyer should be able to evaluate your case, explain the court procedures and advise what his or her fee is for representing you, all in language that you understand. The lawyer’s fee arrangement should be in writing and you should receive a copy of it.
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