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The Trial Process—An Overview

Here's an overview of the various aspects of the DUI/DWI trial process. Understanding the process is may help you feel less overwhelmed by this difficult ordeal.

The process begins with an arraignment, which will be the first time you appear in court. At your arraignment you will receive a copy of the police report and the District Attorney’s charges against you. Your lawyer will enter a plea of not guilty for you, and then dates are set for motions, pre-trial conference and trial.

Pretrial conference
A pre-trial conference is an opportunity for the prosecutor and your attorney to discuss various options to resolve your case without a trial. The district attorney will offer a plea deal that you will consider with your attorney. If you choose to take the district attorney’s offer, or to have your attorney counter with an offer of your own, your case may be resolved at this stage. If not, then you are set to go on to a jury trial.

The U. S. Constitution guarantees each criminal defendant the right to a speedy and public trial. Because of busy trial calendars in many courthouses, the right to a speedy trial has been given specific guidelines, which vary from State to State. These guidelines set time limits on how long you have to wait before your trial. If you are still in custody, you probably will not have to wait as long as you would if you were released on you own recognizance. If your lawyer needs more time to build your case, do an investigation or file motions, he or she can request that these time limits be extended. However, this decision to delay the trial is ultimately up to you: only you can waive your right to a speedy trial.

The jury trial is a hearing in which all of the evidence is presented to 12 jurors, with the judge presiding. The trial will have witnesses from both sides, including the officer or officers who observed you from the time you were stopped until you were released from jail, as well as expert witnesses who will testify regarding the tests that were taken at the police station. You may also testify if you and your lawyer decide it is a good idea, and you may also call other people, such as passengers, who will testify on your behalf.  

The process of selecting 12 jurors from a large pool of potential jurors is called “voir dire.” Both sides—your lawyer and the district attorney—want to choose jurors who will be most sympathetic to their case. In voir dire, both sides are allowed to ask questions of potential jurors and each side is allowed to “challenge,” or reject, a certain number of potential jurors without having to provide a reason. The idea behind the process is that, if both sides are allowed to challenge potential jurors that they believe are biased against them, the jury will be fairly balanced when all is said and done.

Once the jury is selected, the trial will officially begin with each side offering opening statements. The opening statement that your lawyer makes to the jury provides an overview of your version of what happened. It is a story that your lawyer will attempt to persuade the jury of by providing evidence, questioning witnesses and poking holes in the prosecution’s version of events. But before your attorney can present your case fully, the prosecutors must present theirs. In a jury trial, the prosecution always presents its case first. In a certain way, this works in your favor because the jurors—like the rest of us—are more liable to remember what they heard last. Finally, once all the evidence has been presented and all the witnesses have testified, both sides will present closing arguments. The jury will then be given its instructions as to how to weigh the evidence presented to them, after which they will begin deliberation. Once the jury finishes deliberating, all that is left is for them to present their verdict.