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Is Self-Representation a Viable Option to Defend a DUI Charge?

Interviewer: What do you say to the kind of client that feels that they don’t need a lawyer and they want to defend themselves?

An Attorney Will Advise You of What Your Options Are When You Meet for an Initial Consultation

Phil Wormdahl: It’s interesting because part of what I do when I meet with a client for the first time, whether it is a DUI or another type of a criminal charge is that I actually am really thinking about their best interest. When I talk about their best interest I am including in that calculus whether or not they need to hire a lawyer. And it is very, very rare – and I think it’s probably never been in the case of a DUI case but other criminal cases—where I’ve told people, “You probably don’t need a lawyer.”

And I’ve done that before. I’ve said, “You ought to go in and talk to the prosecutor and tell the prosecutor x, y and z. I think the prosecutor will probably dismiss your case or maybe he’ll do this or maybe he’ll do that. And if he doesn’t, you come back here and then you can hire me. This sounds to me like a case where if you follow my advice, you can maybe take care of it without ever having to pay me a dime. And if you don’t have to hire me I don’t want you to waste your money.”

It Is Always Advisable to Retain an Attorney to Defend a Utah DUI

I tell people that. It doesn’t happen all the time and it’s less often than not, but if somebody doesn’t need a lawyer I would tell them that. With regards to DUI, I would say that is almost never the case—and here is why: in Utah, the legislature had designed the DUI law. So when I talk about the DUI laws, what I mean is that there is a section of the code in the Utah state code that deals with not only the offense of DUI, but there’s a handful—maybe a dozen or so—statutes right in sequence after the DUI code, that is the offense.

In Utah, Punishments for DUI Are Mandated by the State

In the statute is the offense, “driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs” they spell out what the punishments are, and the way that that offense needs to be handled procedurally in court. And the particular issue with DUI that makes it very difficult to represent yourself is: most of the punishment for DUI—and punishment is sort of a loaded word and I want to talk about that – but most of the punishment for DUI is mandated by statute.

The significance of something being mandated by statute is this: it doesn’t matter how good your excuse is, it doesn’t matter how much you beg, it doesn’t matter how much the judge doesn’t want to impose certain sanctions on you, they simply have no choice. Because the legislature has said if you get a DUI, this is your minimum, mandatory punishment.

In Utah, the Installation of an Ignition Interlock Device Is Mandatory

For example, if you get a DUI in Utah: whether a judge wants you to install an ignition interlock device in your car, whether a prosecutor wants you to have that in your car or not, whether you beg and plead with the judge not to make you have that in your car—if you get convicted of DUI in Utah, you have to have that in your car. The installation is mandatory for eighteen months, no matter what. So that’s what you call a collateral consequence. It’s not something that’s part of the judge’s order. It’s something the driver license division would do to you after the facts.

If you don’t have a lawyer and you go to court, and you end up pleading guilty to DUI: you might get sentenced and have to take some classes and pay a fine, and be on probation for twelve months. Maybe even really minimal probationary—you just have to stay out of trouble and then lo and behold, a month later you get a letter in the mail that says, “Your license is indefinitely suspended until you show the driver license division proof that you have an ignition interlock in your car.”

Well, you didn’t know that at the time, you may have thought that you had a pretty light sentence for the DUI and you may have thought, “I didn’t even need a lawyer, I’m glad I didn’t hire one.” But now you’re driving around, blowing into an ignition interlock anytime you want to drive your car, and you are paying out of pocket to the tune of a few thousand dollars over the next eighteen months to have it in your car.

The Question May Be: Can You Afford NOT to Retain an Attorney to Defend the DUI Charge?

Most times I would say a DUI lawyer probably isn’t going to cost you much more than the cost of the ignition interlock. But a DUI lawyer could potentially keep that ignition interlock out of your car. Many of my clients—especially on first offenses—their primary concerns are losing their driver’s license and having an ignition interlock in your car, as well as serving jail time. But as far as driver’s license goes, that and the ignition interlock are two big issues for a lot of my clients.

And those three things—jail, ignition interlock, and losing a license–are actually the three issues that a DUI lawyer who knows what they’re doing are most able to help you avoid.