On January 1, 2021, California Assembly Bill 3234 came into effect as a law. According to this new law, judges now have the authority to grant diversion to first-time misdemeanor DUI offenders in lieu of criminal penalties, depending on the severity of the offense. This includes factors such as the defendant’s blood alcohol content, the speed at which the vehicle was moving, where the offense took place, and whether any property was damaged.
Under the diversion provision, criminal proceeding would be put on hold for a period of 24 months. During this period, the defendants will be allowed to pursue a program, which would include counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, with regular updates about the progress being sent to the judge. If the defendant completes the program successfully, the charges are dismissed and the arrest record is erased.
Ever since the introduction of this law, public prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys have argued over its interpretation. Judgments too have been conflicted, owing to a lack of clarity. Prosecutors, attorneys and lawmakers have been seeking clarity on this law from the higher courts and have even appealed for new legislation to resolve the confusion.
This clarity is being sought primarily based on the grounds that the diversion provision is in contradiction with California Vehicle Code Section 23640, which does not allow judges to grant diversion as an alternative to criminal penalties. This has resulted in disparities based on which judge is hearing the case and in which county the trial is being conducted. There are multiple such instances, which have caused heated debates over the past few months.
What happens next?
Multiple bills have been introduced in the legislature to address the issue. Per Senate Bill 421, diversion would only be available for those defendants who have no prior DUI conviction and have also not attended a diversion program in the past 10 years. In addition, those undergoing the diversion program would have to install an ignition interlock device and participate in education and counseling programs. This bill has received approval from two key Senate committees. A Senate committee rejected the other bill, Assembly Bill 282 in July. That bill sought to exclude DUIs from the original bill that was enacted into law.