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DUI Legal Process in North Carolina

DUI charges will always begin at either a traffic stop by an officer or a license check point.  As soon as the officer makes his first encounter with a motorist, he will begin to gather evidence.  Usually the driver will be asked to submit to field sobriety tests if he or she is believe to be impaired.  Once an officer makes the determination (reasonable suspicion) that he believes the driver is impaired, the driver will be arrested and taken into custody.  At the station, the driver will be asked to submit to implied consent chemical tests.  If the arrest leads to charges being filed against the driver, he or she will be taken to the magistrate who will determine whether the driver will be allowed to leave or will be sent to jail.  This determination will be made based on the circumstances surrounding the arrest and the arrested person’s current situation (level of impairment, likelihood of further unlawful conduct, etc.).  Also, any person who is arrested will have their license revoked for 30 days in a “civil revocation.”

When charges are filed, the defendant will be required to attend a first appearance in court.  At this stage, the defendant will be informed of the charges that he or she is facing and the possible punishments if the defendant is convicted.  The court will also inform the defendant that he or she has the right to assistance of legal counsel.  For defendant’s who cannot afford legal counsel, the court will be required to appoint counsel for the defendant.  Individuals do have the right to waive assistance of counsel, though this is not a good decision.  Generally, the first appearance will also include a preliminary cause hearing, but only if the first appearance is in front of a judge.  If a first appearance takes place in front of a judicial officer who is not a judge, such as a magistrate, the preliminary cause hearing will be held at a later time when a judge is available.  At the preliminary hearing, evidence may be presented by both sides to determine the likelihood that the driver committed the charged offense.  If the court finds that the defendant may be guilty, he or she may request a formal arraignment, where they will be required to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest.  If the defendant does not request a formal arraignment or pleads not guilty at a formal arraignment, the case will go to trial.  If the defendant has been incarcerated prior to the preliminary hearing, the judge will, in almost all North Carolina cases, either release the defendant on his own recognizance (promise to appear at later court date) or will require the defendant to post bail, which will be forfeited if the defendant fails to appear at a later court date.

Misdemeanor DUI charges in North Carolina will most likely go to district court, while felony charges will be referred to superior court.  In either instance, the trial will be held in the jurisdiction (county) in which the charges were filed, unless the defendant or his counsel makes a motion to change the venue, which will only be granted in very limited circumstances.  All criminal cases in North Carolina superior courts have jury trials, while district courts do not have jury trials.  Any trial in a district court can be appealed to superior court and the verdict will be canceled, but the appeal must be made within 10 days of the verdict.  Jury verdicts from superior court may be appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

If the defendant is found guilty, he or she will then be sentenced.  Usually, this requires the judge to consider any grossly aggravating, aggravating, or mitigating factors and determining the punishment level for the conviction.  The judge will be required to impose punishment within the punishment level, but does have discretion to impose any sentence within that level.

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