If you are charged with Driving While Intoxicated [VTL 1192(2), (3)] in New York, the criminal defense attorney you choose can be one of the most important decisions of your life. Are you going to retain a “read-em-and-plead-em” hack, the lawyer who handled the closing when you purchased your home, the lawyer who drafted your Will or are you going to retain a lawyer well versed in the law, science and procedures associated with DWI cases?
Are you going to choose an attorney that has experience not just in DWI cases; but also in winning Driving While Intoxicated trials? Make no mistake about it, district attorneys and prosecutors know full well which attorneys are capable of actually taking a DWI case to trial. An attorney’s trial ability often plays a role in the plea bargaining offer. If your attorney has no trial experience, plea bargains all of his or her cases, always backs down at the last minute and accepts whatever offer the prosecution has made and has shown him or herself to be incompetent in the few hearings or trials he or she has done, the prosecutor has no real concern that the case will ever go to trial. If the prosecutor knows that in the end, your attorney will “plea you out” the prosecutor has no incentive to offer anything other than their standard policy offer.
Of course, accepting a plea bargain offer in certain cases is advisable. However, a detailed “risk/benefit” analysis must first be done. If the prosecution wants you to plead guilty to misdemeanor DWI with three years of probation and you’re a first time offender and the case did not involve any accident or injuries; their might not be any risk associated with going to trial because it’s very unlikely you would be sentenced to anything more than probation if you lost at trial.
A lawyer should not advise a client to accept a plea bargain unless that attorney has thoroughly investigated the case. That includes listening to, and investigating, not only a defendant’s claim of innocence, but the facts, circumstances and issues concerning probable cause to stop the vehicle, the legality of the roadblock, the administration of Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, the timeline of events, the officers involved, the administration of any breathalyzer testing, blood drawing, urine collecting and other issues that can arise in DWI cases.
In certain Driving While Intoxicated cases it might be advisable that the attorney visit the scene of the stop. The attorney might view the area where the defendant performed the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. The attorney might even travel the route the defendant traveled prior to being pulled over. If the defendant claims he or she only had one or two drinks, credit card statements from the restaurant or other establishment where the defendant was prior to being stopped by the police might be helpful. Interviews with employees of the establishment where the defendant drank might reveal a witness to defendant’s drinking. Are their any witnesses to defendant’s driving?
Only after a searching and diligent review and investigation of the above factors as well as the relevant statutes, regulations and case law can an attorney render an opinion on a plea bargain offer. Most importantly however, the attorney who conducts the case review must be extremely knowledgeable and experienced in DWI defense. An attorney can spend countless hours reviewing and investigating all aspects of a Driving While Intoxicated case with zealous enthusiasm, however, if that attorney simply doesn’t know the laws, rules, regulations, case law, science, toxicology, breath testing, chemical testing, police procedures, etc., that lawyer’s opinion on a plea bargain offer will be no better than flipping a coin.
In a recent decision, the New York State Appellate Division unanimously affirmed a lower court ruling which granted a defendant’s motion to vacate his guilty plea in a Driving While Intoxicated case. The Court concluded that “[d]efense counsel failed to conduct any investigation, make any motions, or even view the video of defendant’s breathalyzer test before negotiating a plea bargain whereby defendant would plead guilty to the top count of the accusatory instrument.” People v Rivera, 2012 NY Slip Op 43, 1 (1st Dept. Jan. 5, 2012).
In support of its decision, the Court observed that there were defenses that should have been investigated including matters affecting the accuracy of the breathalyzer result. Furthermore, the Court explained that, because the defendant had no prior record and no accident occurred, it was extremely unlikely that he would have received a jail sentence had he lost at trial. Therefore, the “defendant received little, if any benefit, by pleading guilty to the top count without ever having received even a minimally accurate assessment of the strength of the People’s case.” Id.
The Rivera decision unfortunately does not indicate the sentence defendant received as part of the plea deal or what his Blood Alcohol Concentration was. In fairness to the attorney that represented defendant in Rivera, if his BAC was alleged to be, for example .16 or .17 and the plea offer didn’t require probation, than Rivera did receive some benefit. Specifically, he avoided probation, which can be difficult for some. For example, in Westchester, avoiding probation is a major consideration on DWI cases because DWI probation in Westchester County can be fairly onerous.
Nevertheless, the Rivera decision should put all defense attorneys on notice that it is unacceptable to advise a DWI client to plead guilty to the top charge without first conducting any real investigation into the strength of the prosecution’s case. The Rivera decision should also put everyone who is charged with DWI on notice that they should speak with several attorneys and get several opinions prior to retaining an attorney. And, the attorney they retain should be knowledgeable specifically with DWI cases.
Generally, if you are charged with Driving While Intoxicated and have no prior criminal history; there was no accident; no injuries; no property damage and there are no allegations that you were driving in an overly reckless or unreasonable manner, be very careful if your attorney recommends you plead guilty to the top charge with probation – be even more careful if your attorney makes such a recommendation very early in the case.