Should I Get a Lawyer for My First DUI Offense?

While DUI first-time offenders have the right to represent themselves, it’s best to get legal counsel

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on July 28, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Mark Thiessen and Stephen P. Pfeiffer

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Things can quickly spiral out of control if you choose to drink and drive.

Every state has strict laws against driving under the influence of alcohol, and law enforcement is diligent in enforcing DUI laws. If an officer detains you at a traffic stop on a reasonable suspicion that you’re impaired based on signs of intoxication, they can ask you to take field sobriety tests or blow into a breathalyzer.

Failing the field sobriety tests or showing a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over the legal limit gives the police officer probable cause for a DUI arrest. If convicted on first-offense DUI charges, you’ll have a misdemeanor on your criminal record and face potentially lifelong impacts.

So, the stakes are high—but is it necessary to get a lawyer for a first-time DUI?

According to Stephen P. Pfeiffer, a Virginia criminal defense attorney specializing in DUI law, “It’s absolutely imperative, if someone truly cares about their record and future, to hire a competent DUI attorney.”

Even if you think the case against you is airtight since you blew over the legal limit on a breathalyzer test, an experienced DUI lawyer may see things differently. “Having a competent DUI attorney who really focuses their energy on this area of law could be the difference between a guilty and not-guilty plea, a reduction of the consequences, or at least letting the individual know that they got the best result possible,” Pfeiffer says.

DUI/DWI law is its own specialty, with its own board certification. It’s like the brain surgery of criminal law. You have so much science, so much law, and so many nuances that you have to keep up with.

Mark Thiessen

The Potential Consequences of a DUI Conviction 

The consequences for a first-offense DUI conviction vary by state but commonly include the following:

  • Fines and court fees;
  • Jail time or probation;
  • Substance abuse evaluation and education;
  • Driver’s license suspension or restricted driving privileges;
  • The installation of an ignition interlock device (IID) on your motor vehicle;
  • Community service

Pfeiffer explains the DUI penalties in Virginia as an example of what defendants could face. “In Virginia, if you’re convicted of a first-offense DUI, you’re going to be facing the following consequences:

  • A mandatory minimum $250 fine plus court costs. That’s the lowest fine a court can give you. The highest they can give you is $2500 plus court costs.
  • There’s also a mandatory 12-month suspension of your driver’s license.
  • 12 months of good behavior is also required on a DUI first-offense conviction.
  • They will monitor you, basically like probation, for 12 months to ensure that you’re not using alcohol, using drugs, or other conditions that they set forward.

“If you’re convicted of a DUI under a .15 BAC, you must also enroll in and successfully complete the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP),” Pfeiffer adds. “That program consists of taking some classes on substance abuse and highway safety. If they believe you have a dependency issue, they’ll send you to additional therapy and treatment that you have to pay for out of pocket.”

In addition to the immediate criminal penalties, a DUI conviction will bring many long-term effects as well, including:

  • Negative impacts on employment prospects and education, including professional licensures or security clearances;
  • Damage to your personal and professional reputation;
  • Restriction on travel to some countries and immigration procedures.

I tell all my clients not to hire me unless they trust me—that they believe I know what I’m doing, that they’re comfortable with me, that they like my style of communication, and that they can afford me.

Stephen P. Pfeiffer

Individuals generally have the right to represent themselves in court. Known by the Latin term “pro se” (meaning “for oneself”), you have to willingly waive your right to legal representation and demonstrate a basic understanding of court procedures in order to qualify.

At a court hearing, a judge will assess whether you are competent to represent yourself based on factors such as your age, education, ability to speak the language, and the severity of your criminal charges.

Even though you can represent yourself in a DUI case, experts in DUI law strongly recommend against it.

“DUI/DWI law is its own specialty, with its own board certification,” says Mark Thiessen, a DUI attorney in Houston, Texas. “It’s like the brain surgery of criminal law. You have so much science, so much law, and so many nuances that you have to keep up with.”

Pfeiffer agrees: “DUI law may be one of the most complicated areas of criminal defense for both defense and the government to prove. It’s a combination of criminal procedures, constitutional law, scientific evidence, and evidentiary rules—plus the human element.”

Even in seemingly clear-cut cases, it’s wise to at least consult with a DUI lawyer. Attorneys provide initial consultations to learn about your case and for you to learn about them. Often, these consultations are free or involve a small fee. “We provide free consultations all the time,” says Thiessen.

A DUI lawyer will use their legal expertise to try to minimize the negative consequences of a DUI conviction while also providing emotional support and guidance during the stressful and challenging time of a criminal case.

“Although it seems like, “Oh, I blew over a .08, so I’m guilty’ – that’s not necessarily the case,” says Pfeiffer. There is a wide range of defense strategies that a DUI lawyer can bring into play but that require specialized knowledge of how the law and science of DUI works:

  • Challenging the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) readings of chemical tests (breathalyzer/breath test, blood tests, urine tests);
  • Challenging the procedures that police officers used in administering field sobriety tests and chemical tests;
  • Contesting the validity of a traffic stop.

In short, DUI law and the legal system can be overwhelming for individuals without a legal background, even in seemingly simple DUI cases. It’s all the more overwhelming when you are the one facing the possibility of a DUI conviction.

Lack of knowledge and experience in DUI defense could lead to unfavorable—and avoidable—outcomes in your case.

How Do I Find a Qualified DUI Defense Attorney?

How do you find a good DUI lawyer? “I always encourage people to look at various qualifications,” says Pfeiffer:

  1. Client Reputation. Make sure that attorney has an excellent online reputation from previous clients. That’s important because it shows how that attorney interacts with others like you.
  2. Peer Reputation. Make sure they also have an excellent reputation among other professionals. Indications of this include peer reviews, recognitions, scholarly writings, education, and certifications. Ask yourself: Do they appear to be someone who’s recognized in the DUI defense community for their expertise?
  3. DUI Law Focus. Next, ask: What percentage of their practice is DUI-defense related? Are they a general practitioner who does everything? Are they a general criminal defense practitioner who does all criminal work? Or are they someone who focuses on DUI law specifically?
  4. Jurisdiction. How much of their practice do they spend in the particular courthouse you’re charged in? Jurisdictions vary in terms of personalities and punishments. Having a lawyer who’s very familiar with the judges, prosecutors, and police—and how that individual courthouse operates versus elsewhere in the state—makes a big difference.
  5. Personality. Finally, I tell all my clients not to hire me unless they trust me—that they believe I know what I’m doing, that they’re comfortable with me, that they like my style of communication, and that they can afford me.

To start your search for a reputable and experienced DUI attorney in your area, use the Super Lawyers directory to look by practice area and location.

For more information about this law area, see our DUI/DWI law overview.

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