Interviewer: You were saying that up to five counties in northern California are going to be changing either the way they handle DUIs or some part of the DUI process. Can you go into some detail?
Aaron: Actually, a lot of counties all over California have been changing their approach to dealing with DUI cases and that stems mainly from budget cuts. And what is happening is a lot of counties are getting grants for special prosecutors or DUI cases, and they seem to be starting to work together with other counties and coming up with new ideas on how to prosecute DUIs.
So, that is creating some change. Another topic creating some changes is proposed laws that are coming up in the legislature. One of which, which is very scary and we can talk more about this later, is they want to change the law on prescription drugs for DUI cases and make prescription drugs a per se violation. If you do not have a prescription for a drug or, specifically, what they are going after here are medical marijuana users. And if you have any prescription drug or non-prescription drug in your system and it’s not a legal drug then it’s trouble.
New Prosecutors in the San Francisco Bay Area
Specifically what’s going on, and I’m going to talk about the Bay area counties because I have practiced almost exclusively in the nine San Francisco Bay area counties, in DUI defense, in court and at DMV. Every county seems like they’re coming up with changes.
Specifically, let’s talk about Sonoma County. Let’s start a little farther north in the Bay area. What they have done in one county that has a grant is added two special DUI prosecutors. These prosecutors now handle multiple offenses or more difficult cases including cases that may deviate from the usual standard.
They handle a lot of the standard, first-DUI arrests as well, but the types of cases that they will take on are ones that have accidents and allegations of extremely high blood-alcohol levels, prior offenses and factors of that nature.
In Northern California, Cases Involving Aggravating Circumstances Were Previously Handled Through Sonoma County Prosecutors
Interviewer: What used to happen, though, if it was that kind of case? Such as a case involving multiple offenses and/or a high blood alcohol level?
Aaron: What would happen before is it would just go to any courtroom prosecutor who served in one of four courtrooms in Sonoma County. Sonoma County DUIs are handled in the Santa Rosa Courthouse on Administrative Drive and there are two different prosecuting offices.
One is the district attorney’s office and the second is the city of Sonoma, which also retains a special prosecutor. So, the cases would go to one of four courtrooms and the DA, the prosecutors or the city attorneys who would be in those courtrooms would handle that case.
Through Grant Funding, Sonoma County Has Added Two Special Prosecutors for DUI Offenses
Now you’ve got a couple special prosecutors who have this grant money, and they are handling a lot of the DUI cases now. What has happened with that is the plea bargains have gotten stricter, and the court has actually instituted other changes. Instead of the case starting in one of four misdemeanor courtrooms and going all the way through there, they’re funneling all the cases into department number two, where your DUI arraignment will start.
Sonoma County Has Also Changed the Procedures for Arraignments and Pre-Trial Conferences
Now the cases are all heard in the afternoon. They used to be in the morning, but the arraignments are in the afternoon and your DUI pre-trial conference or settlement conference will also be in the afternoon at 1:30. And, if the case is not resolved in that courtroom and needs to go out for a suppression motion trial, anything like that, then it would get sent out to Departments 6, 7, or 8 where the case would continue there.
So, that’s a big change. It seems like they’re not running the DUI multiple-offender court that they had before. The county ran out of their grant money for that court. So I’m not hearing much about that anymore.
Are The Special Prosecutors Focused on DUI Cases Exclusively?
Interviewer: So they have a few special prosecutors, but does that mean that these attorneys are better at prosecuting the cases, or is it just they’re more focused?
It Is Advisable to Retain a Highly Experienced DUI Defense Attorney When Facing the Special Prosecutors
Aaron: That’s a very good question. They are just handling DUI cases. So, what is currently happening is the offers on DUI cases have been getting stricter, meaning less favorably disposed to the defendants. The cases where they previously would reduce charges – a lower blood-alcohol level – they’re not as likely to do that anymore. The fight has gotten much more difficult and this is why, in Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, you definitely need a specialized DUI lawyer who only handles DUIs.
The Plea Bargain Process Has Now Become Less favorably Disposed Toward the Defendants
Interviewer: Why have the offers become less favorable? Is it because these prosecutors have specifically been given money to prosecute and if they don’t go hard on people that they’re going to look bad or their jobs are going to be lost? Could that be their real motivation?
Aaron: Well, there are statistics. And my best guess is if they want to keep getting this grant money they need their statistics. Their conviction rate of certain DUI offenses needs to either be the same or become a higher percentage.
The demands for improved statistics are driven by money from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD, and the legislature and different organizations that are supporting the prosecution of drunk drivers. This money is going toward not just this county, Sonoma County.
Napa County Also Employs a Special Prosecutor
I’ve also seen it in Napa County where they have one special prosecutor doing the DUI work. And I have not seen any major changes there. They still have their normal DUI prosecutor. With the last couple of prosecutors that have been in charge, I have noticed that their DUI prosecutions have been more reasonable. More so than some of the people they’ve had there in the past.
Napa County Has Not Instituted Major Changes in the DUI Prosecutorial Process
So, I’m not seeing any major changes in Napa County for DUI arrests and DUI prosecution. Their drunk driving laws traditionally have always been very strict in Napa, and they get a lot of injury accidents in Napa due to a lot of two-lane roads. And, of course, it’s the wine country, Napa and Sonoma, and so you do get a lot of accidents and DUIs up there. People come in from all over the world to go to the wine country.
Marin County Has Instituted Changes to the DUI Prosecutorial Process
So, working farther south, we’ve got Marin County and what Marin has done is the opposite of what they did in Sonoma County with DUI prosecutions. Instead of everything funneling into one courtroom and then going out to other courtrooms, like Sonoma does now, Marin is starting the cases much quicker in the other courtrooms.
So, you will start out in one courtroom for your arraignment and get to your conferences. They call it a “change of plea” or set for hearing or trial, pre-trial conference. And that will be in one of five courtrooms. So, in Marin County when you’re arrested for a DUI, you will end up, after the arraignment, in either Department J, G, F, D, or K and three of those departments start at 9:00, two of them start at 8:30. Those judges are not only handling misdemeanor cases, they are handling everything from theft to DUI to rape, robbery, murder. They’re handling every type of case.
Marin County Also Has Retained Two Special Prosecutors
So, it is just a different way that Marin wants to do things. Marin has two special DUI prosecutors so it seems like they’ve gotten that grant money as well. And they seem to be handling just certain DUIs. They still have an expediter in Marin County and the DA’s office, who will negotiate with you on misdemeanor cases.
They don’t negotiate on DUIs. They give you an offer and you try and convince them that they should dismiss the case and, if not, then you go to trial or you take a plea deal. So, Marin County has changed in their system the way that they’re farming cases out to the different courtrooms instead of just staying in one courtroom until a jury trial.
DUI Cases in San Mateo County Will Be Heard in Redwood County, Contra Costa County DUI cases Will Be Heard in Martinez
A very interesting thing that’s going on in San Mateo County, and the same thing is happening in Contra Costa County, is their major budget problems have caused them to completely shut down or almost completely shut down courthouses. So, in San Mateo County, the South San Francisco Courthouse, which used to handle thousands of DUIs and other types of cases, my understanding is the middle of this year, sometime in June they will be shutting that courthouse down. They are retaining two felony courtrooms that will handle preliminary hearings and everything will go to Redwood City.
So, all the DUI cases in San Mateo County will now be in Redwood City, which it’s just going to overflow that courthouse. It’s a big courthouse. It’s their biggest one, but it’s really going to slow things down. In Contra Costa County, they have recently shut down the Walnut Creek Courthouse and all of the DUI and other cases are now going to Martinez.
By Aaron Bortel