A DUI charge is often described as "the $10,000 ride home." While that may sound a bit outrageous, it is actually a pretty close reflection of the national average with respect to the cost of the entire ordeal for being caught driving under the influence of alcohol. Since it’s the average, that figure may wind up costing considerably more or less, depending on the circumstances.
What Factors Cause DUIs to Vary?
Driving under the influence is a state specific crime, meaning each state is left to determine what punishment they see fit. Below is a general break down in DUI costs, excluding potential jail time.
- Fines – A fine is what the state decided is an appropriate monetary punishment for breaking the law. For example, in California for first time offenders, these fines can be as small as $390 and as high as $1,000.
- Costs and Penalties – Costs and penalties tend to slip the mind when thinking about court, but they can add up quickly. The court will "charge" for their time, as well as the fees the state used to test and screen the defendant, order mandatory payments to victim’s restitution funds (even if there is no injury from the crime, there could have been), alcohol education funds, interlocutory devices, and mandatory substances abuse classes. These classes may be offered in lieu of jail time, in addition to weekend monitoring or house arrest, which also costs money. Penalties may or may not include towing and impounding a vehicle.
- Insurance – Drivers are required to carry valid insurance, and failing to do so may result in a license suspension. Unsurprisingly, insurance companies, if they do not drop coverage outright, will view that driver as more of a risk and increase premiums. While it is difficult to quantify exactly what that increase may be, most estimate that an increase of two to three times what the driver was already paying is pretty run of the mill.
- Attorney’s Fees – Many DUI information resources the mistake of lumping attorney’s fees in with "costs and penalties." That is a mistake for two reasons. First, it is inaccurate, as having a lawyer defend one’s cause is not a punishment but a smart decision. Second, it neglects to evaluate the most important aspect of going through the criminal justice system, which is hiring the right criminal defense attorney for the job, and knowing what is being paid for.
What Goes into Determining a Lawyer's Fees?
Most criminal defense lawyers will charge a flat fee or hourly rate.
With a flat fee arrangement, expect to pay about $2,500 - $4,000 in attorney’s fees. A lower amount is in no way a reflection of lower quality legal work and skill, but rather a reflection of that lawyer’s perception of the amount of time and skill a DUI will take that particular lawyer, as well as the likelihood of an agreement will be reached.
Additionally, this method of billing should not be confused with a discount "one size fits all" cost. There is no general determination of what a case will cost. However, and fortunately, experienced DUI lawyers have been able to narrow down what kind of work goes into a DUI, including:
Not every DUI is the same. A lawyer may increase a flat fee where additional lab work will need to be done, an expert will need to be brought in, or the case is particularly difficult or serious, for instance, involving a commercial vehicle or resisting arrest.
If a DUI lawyer is charging a flat fee, they have likely made an evaluation that they can negotiate a favorable plea agreement and avoid a long, costly trial. A flat fee may also include all preliminary work, but exclude a trial. The reason for this is simple: efficiency. Keeping track of hours, which are typically billed in 6-minute intervals, or 1/10th of an hour, is not necessarily the best use of time for a busy criminal defense lawyer, who is usually in court anyway, where standard hourly rates would rack up to astronomical very quickly.
Many cringe when they hear "plea bargain" and believe their lawyer is not working hard on their case. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Consider this: before trial, the lawyer need only convince a district attorney and judge of the faults in the prosecution’s case, if there are any.
Why Would Lawyers Charge an Hourly Fee?
Hourly rates will also vary greatly, depending mostly on the lawyer’s caseload, skills, and reputation. On average, expect to pay $200 - $500 for a lawyer’s time. Again, a lower hourly rate is in no way indicative of the quality of representation, but simply what the lawyer has determined their time is worth.
While that may seem high, consider the following: to become a lawyer, someone needs to go through four years of college, three to four years of law school, and another six months studying for and passing a bar exam. Essentially, this person has spent about 8 years becoming well-versed and skilled in their profession. Start adding on additional experience and time in the courtroom, and it becomes clear that the lawyer’s life has been dedicated to do the job they have been hired to do.
If a DUI lawyer is charging an hourly fee, it is likely because the case is unique or complex. As mentioned above, hourly rates require keeping tabs on all the time spent working on a case, and for a case that is standard to the lawyer, spending all the time keeping tabs on everything they did for the purposes of book-keeping is not the best use of their time and does not benefit the interests of their clients.
A lawyer who works on an hourly rate may require the payment of a retainer. This retainer will cover a certain amount of that lawyer’s time. After the retainer is expended, a standard or discounted hourly rate will apply.
Is One Fee Structure Better than Another?
Not at all. However, it is important to be aware of the different types of billing, and when consulting with a DUI lawyer, asking about which one they use and why. Not only does this help open a dialogue between the lawyer and the client, it also illustrates exactly what your lawyer intends to do for you, and how they determined they should be compensated for their time.