Do I have to plead guilty to DUI in Virginia?
No one is required to plead guilty to a criminal charge in the United States. The Constitution guarantees defendants the right to confront the witnesses and evidence against them at trial. Pleading guilty might be the best decision under some circumstances, but it should be for a good reason.
It is unlikely that you could make an informed decision at the beginning of the case even after talking to an attorney. Some common concerns that are not good reasons to plead guilty include:
- Fear of angering the court by wasting its time. It is not a waste of time to exercise one’s constitutional rights. The judge will not be mad. They like to hear cases when the attorneys involved are good.
- Pleading “not guilty” is a lie. A plea is not testimony or a denial of guilt. It only tells the court whether there will be a trial or not. Testifying to something that is untrue is a lie, but defendants do not have to testify.
- If I don’t testify, the judge will think I did it. The right to remain silent continues after an arrest. The court cannot conclude that someone is guilty from the exercise of a Constitutional right. Otherwise that right would be worthless. Fortunately, most successful defenses have little to do with whether the defendant testifies (or whether she is guilty). Even if you did nothing wrong, testifying can hurt your defense and may not be a good idea—just like talking to the police during an investigation.
- I refused the breathalyzer or blood test. The DUI statutes address this directly: refusal of the breathalyzer or blood test is not evidence of driver impairment, consciousness of guilt or anything else on the DUI. While it is not evidence of guilt, a refusal conviction precludes a restricted driver’s license if convicted for the DUI.
- I have been convicted of DUI before, so the judge will think I did it again. The court may know about other DUI convictions during the trial, but it cannot consider them as evidence of impairment during the current offense. The judges understand that well.
- The judge will think I was drunk because I had an accident. Accidents can be aggravating factors for sentencing in DUI cases, but they do not prove impairment without additional evidence. Not every driver who has an accident is impaired by alcohol or drugs, even if s/he smells like alcohol. Sleep deprivation is just as likely to cause an accident as impairment from alcohol or drugs.
- The judges always believe the police officer. The law does not allow the court to assign witnesses extra credibility because of their employment. However, even if the court does believe the officer completely, most successful defenses do not require contradicting the officer’s testimony.
- The breathalyzer or blood test result said my BAC was .08…I must be guilty. The breathalyzer and blood test results are not always accurate. Even when the results are accurate, the test measures BAC or drug levels at the time of the test—not the time of the offense. After consuming alcohol or drugs, blood levels rise for some time before they start to decline. Evidence that BAC was rising between the time of arrest and administration of the breathalyzer or blood test can be enough to win the trial.
- Everyone gets convicted of DUI.The laws are tough, but this is not true. Even if the result is a conviction for DUI, going to trial can make a big difference in the sentence.
Although no one must ever plead guilty, it may make sense for defendants who receive something in exchange for it. A plea offer might be good enough to justify giving up a chance to win at trial. Another situation might be pleading guilty to a DUI charge when there is also a refusal charge. The DUI statutes allow the judge to dismiss a refusal charge when the driver pleads guilty to the DUI. Without the refusal conviction, the court can then grant a restricted driver’s license even if there is no plea agreement with the prosecutor. It would depend on how badly the driver needs a restricted driver’s license and how strong of a defense to the DUI she would have if she were to go to trial.