The first Court appearance on a DUI case is called an arraignment. The purpose of this Court date is to allow the person accused, in legal terms a "defendant", to enter a plea to the charges filed by the local prosecutor. The charges are contained in a document that is called a "complaint" and it is filed with the court that is closest to where the arrest took place.
The possible pleas that could be entered are guilty, not guilty and no contest. If you have hired a lawyer to fight the case he or she will probably recommend pleading not guilty. Why is this the best option? We'll, in most cases the attorney will want to review all of the evidence such as the official police report, the breath or blood test records and any other evidence the state has. In many cases, when the evidence is investigated there may be errors that occurred such as violations of the state regulations pertaining to testing or there may be a violation of your constitutional rights such as some illegality surrounding the arrest or the reason the officer pulled you over in the first place.
Once I plead not guilty does this mean I have to go to trial? No, a defendant can change their plea at any time and most cases are resolved prior to a jury trial. The attorney can often develop arguments and defenses that will allow them to negotiate a favorable deal such as a reduction of the charge or a reduction in the possible sentence imposed. For example, in many drunk driving cases a key issue is the lawfulness of the initial stop, the attorney will want to carefully review the reports to determine if a motion to dismiss is appropriate based on a violation of the 4th Amendment.
Why can't my attorney get to see all of the evidence before the arraignment and be able to resolve the case at that stage? Although in many cases counsel will receive some reports before the first a Court date, under California law a defendant is not entitled to full disclosure of the evidence until he or she is "arraigned" therefore although some reports may be acquired prior to the initial appearance, the DA does not have to provide everything until the arraignment. Even at that stage some evidence may not be available. For example, a blood result may not be reported by the laboratory for sometimes 60-90 days. It is obviously prudent to wait for the results of that test before deciding whether to plead guilty or no contest.
What will be the next step after the arraignment ? A subsequent Court date will be scheduled, usually called a pretrial, or it's possible that the arraignment will be continued to allow the attorney to review the discovery provided by the DA. You will be contacted at a future date to discuss the case and go over your options.
Do I need to be there at the first appearance? Generally no. Unless the case is a felony, the law allows for attorneys to appear on behalf of their clients unless the judge orders it. What are the circumstances where a judge can order a personal appearance? When public safety requires the judge to set bail or impose conditions of the defendant's release. For instance, if the accused has prior DUI convictions or is on probation then a judge can set bail an remand a defendant. The judge can also require the defendant to attend AA meetings or enroll in an alcohol education program as a condition of his or her release.