One of the first questions to arise for someone facing a DUI (or DWI or OWI) is what to do about legal representation. Should you hire a lawyer? Can you use the public defender? Are you better off going it alone?
We recently surveyed readers to learn about how being represented by a lawyer—and the kind of lawyer you’re represented by—affects DUI costs and outcomes. These readers had been arrested for DUI and either hired private lawyers or public defenders or represented themselves.
How Does Having a DUI Lawyer Affect the Likely Outcome?
Most players in the criminal justice system would agree that it’s almost never a good idea to represent oneself when facing charges. Let's take a look at what the data says about private DUI lawyers versus public defenders and self-representation.
Outcomes for People Who Hired Private DUI Lawyers
A majority of DUI defendants who hired private lawyers were convicted of some form of DUI, whether by a plea bargain or a conviction after trial (as with those who used public defenders and those who represented themselves). But the percentage convicted—65%—was the lowest for readers who hired private lawyers.
Charges were dismissed or never filed for another 12%, and 1% were acquitted (found not guilty) after a trial.
Notably, 22% of people who hired private lawyers were able to plea bargain for lesser, non-DUI offenses. These offenses included reckless driving, "wet reckless," and impaired driving. By comparison, only 7% of public-defender clients and 0% of self-represented defendants ended up with such “lesser” pleas. While one of the benefits of having an attorney seems to be a better chance of getting a favorable plea bargain, sometimes the prosecution will offer a standard deal regardless of whether a lawyer is involved.
Outcomes for People Represented by Public Defenders
The DUI conviction rate was higher for survey respondents who were represented by public defenders (PDs). Of these folks, 74% were convicted of some kind of DUI. Charges were dropped or never filed in another 15% of cases, and public defenders achieved not-guilty verdicts in 4% of DUI cases. As mentioned above, 7% percent of public-defender clients pleaded to reckless driving or some other kind of lesser offense.
Outcomes for People Without Lawyers
The DUI conviction rate was also high for those who didn’t hire a lawyer: 74% of our unrepresented survey takers ended up with a DUI conviction of some kind, mostly through guilty (or "no contest") pleas. Very few of these "pro se" defendants took their cases to trial, so it's not surprising that 0% of the unrepresented folks were found not guilty after trial. And as mentioned above, 0% of the DUI arrestees pleaded to a lesser offense without the help of a lawyer.
Finally, 26% of the respondents who didn’t hire a lawyer saw their charges dropped or never even faced charges. In all likelihood, these folks didn’t have to defend themselves because of the circumstances of their cases, not because they represented themselves better than a lawyer could. A portion of these folks might have showed up for arraignment without a lawyer and learned that the prosecution decided not to file charges.
How Does Having a DUI Lawyer Affect the Cost of a DUI?
Figuring out how to approach a DUI case isn’t as simple as deciding whether or not to act as one’s own lawyer. Those with low enough income to qualify for court-appointed counsel (a public defender or "panel attorney") might be able to scrounge up enough to pay for a private lawyer, but these folks might wonder whether it’s worth the cost of paying an attorney.
In a fundamental sense, it might cost less to represent oneself or go with the public defender; you’re certainly spending less on attorneys’ fees than if you hired an attorney. But lawyers, both private and public, have the training to get better case outcomes than pro se defendants. And paying for a lawyer can at times be the cheapest option when you consider that winning a case can mean not having to pay fines, fees, and related costs such as hiked insurance rates.
Not only that, but some costs are difficult if not impossible to quantify. License suspensions or jail sentences can lead to lost income (and how one person calculates the amount of income lost due to a DUI case might differ from how another would do the same). Plus, criminal convictions can create losses when it comes to endeavors like applying for jobs or renting property.
In calculating the total cost of a DUI case, we stuck with the quantifiable, such as the following factors:
- attorneys' fees and expenses
- court-ordered fines
- traffic-school and alcohol-education-course costs
- ignition interlock devices
- DMV fees
- towing and storage costs, and
- increases in car insurance rates.
DUI Cost for People Who Hired Private Lawyers
Among our readers, the total case cost was highest for those who hired private lawyers, though perhaps by not as much as you might expect. The total cost for readers in this group came out to $6,600, including an average of $2,400 in attorneys’ fees and expenses. (Note that attorneys’ fees and expenses can be significantly higher when a case goes to trial than if it ends in a plea.)
Costs other than attorney fees averaged $4,200 for those who hired private lawyers, including fines, DMV and traffic school fees, the cost of installing ignition interlock devices, and increased insurance rates. Most of these individual costs were similar across categories (for example, on average, people without lawyers paid $1,300 in court-ordered fines, while people with private lawyers or public defenders paid $1,100 for such fines). But one type of cost varied significantly: insurance rate increases. For those who hired private lawyers, the average insurance increase was only $1,900 over three years. This was the lowest among the three groups (more on this below).
DUI Cost for People Represented by Public Defenders
Our survey takers who used public defenders spent an average of $5,600 on their DUI cases. These folks actually reported spending an average of $800 in attorneys’ fees and expenses. (Depending on the circumstances, people represented by appointed lawyers can be required to partially reimburse the government for the cost of representation).
Costs other than attorney fees averaged $4,800 for readers who used public defenders; the average insurance increase was $2,500 over three years.
DUI Cost for People Without Lawyers
Our survey results showed an average overall cost of $5,800 for readers who didn’t hire lawyers (slightly higher than the cost for readers with public defenders). While this average total is $800 less than using a private lawyer, going it alone isn’t necessarily the cheapest option when you consider the repercussions. Remember that 100% of defendants without a lawyer who didn't have their charges dropped were convicted of DUI, and 0% pleaded to a lesser offense.
Also note that when you compare the total fines and expenses for defendants without representation ($5,800) to the fines and expenses for those using a public defender ($4,800, not including attorney fees) and using a private lawyer ($4,200, not including attorney fees), it appears that having legal representation lowered DUI-related costs. This difference can mostly be attributed to the higher insurance rates the unrepresented group paid on average ($3,000 over three years). The increased insurance cost for people without lawyers might be at least partially due to the fact that more of them were convicted of some form of DUI. In addition, the unrepresented group paid slightly higher court-ordered fines (an average of $1,300 compared to $1,100).
Taking a closer look at costs, significantly more defendants without a lawyer had their charges dropped (26% of defendants), possibly because the cases against them were weaker. As a result, they didn’t have to go through the entire court process. Had more been forced to go to trial or reach a plea deal, the average overall cost per unrepresented defendant would have been much higher.
Is satisfaction ever really assured? In the legal world, the definitive answer is no. But our survey showed that people facing DUI charges with private lawyers were twice as satisfied with the outcome as people without a lawyer, and three times as satisfied as those who used public defenders. (For the reasons noted above, however, readers should be wary of interpreting the satisfaction rates as an indication that it’s better to go it alone than with the public defender.)
Indeed, 45% of people who hired lawyers were satisfied or very satisfied with the way their cases resolved. Not only that, but 62% of these people were either satisfied or very satisfied with their lawyers; only 15% of public defender clients could say the same. So, people who hired private attorneys were more than four times as satisfied with their lawyer than those who hired PDs.
Among readers who didn’t have lawyers, only 26% reported being either satisfied or very satisfied with their case outcomes. And the satisfaction rate was even lower for folks with public defenders: only 11% were either satisfied or very satisfied with their case outcomes. That more unrepresented people never faced charges or had them dropped may help explain this discrepancy—what’s a better outcome than, “The People have elected not to file charges”?
The highest satisfaction rate being found among readers with private lawyers could be due to any number of factors. In our survey, for example, private attorneys appeared to have had more success pleading cases “down” to lesser offenses. But other circumstances could also be at play. It might be, for instance, that privately paid lawyers spent more time on their clients’ cases and were more available for consultation and questions.
No two cases are identical, and no survey can cover every conceivably relevant issue. These are important points to keep in mind when reading about DUI-case outcomes and costs. It could be, for example, that public defenders tend to see more serious cases or more clients with prior convictions, or that penalties tend to be more severe in one part of the country than another.
Remember that surveys indicate trends—they won’t determine your fate. Case facts, like whether anyone was hurt, contribute greatly to results. So do prosecutors’ policies and attitudes. One of your first steps after a DUI arrest should be at least consulting with an attorney who knows both DUI law and the local criminal justice system.