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What You Need to Know About Drunk Driving Charges

A drunk driving arrest is many people's first exposure to the criminal justice system. An arrest is a scary experience, but making sure you know how to navigate the system will impact how your case is resolved.

When Is a Driver Drunk?

The definition of drunk driving is left up to each state, which decides what a driver's blood alcohol content (BAC) has to be to operate a motor vehicle safely. In every state, however, that level is set at .08%.

Many states also have lower levels of permissible blood alcohol content for certain classes of drivers. For example, many states have limits as low as 0.04% for commercial truck drivers and even lower limits for drivers under the legal drinking age of 21. Many states also have enhanced drunk driving laws, which allow for harsher penalties if your BAC is, for example, double the legal limit.

What Are the Penalties for Drunk Driving?

While every state now considers driving with a BAC of .08% to be driving drunk, penalties for a drunk driving conviction vary widely. However, in nearly all states, a conviction on a charge such as driving under the influence (DUI), driving while intoxicated (DWI), or operating under the influence (OUI), include some combination of:

  • Jail sentences ranging from a few days to several months or a few years
  • Fees for court costs and fines
  • Driver's license suspension or revocation
  • Mandatory classes on the dangers of drunk driving
  • Usage of an ignition interlock device to drive
  • Court-ordered alcohol rehabilitation

If you are ever arrested and convicted for driving drunk more than once, each conviction will likely come with worse penalties. The penalties will also increase in severity if you cause an accident with injuries or fatalities.

Getting Through the Drunk Driving Stop

Even the calmest person can have a tough time maintaining their composure during a drunk driving stop. The flashing lights in your rearview mirror, the cop's flashlight, and the questions can be tough to process.

But it's important to remember that you have the same rights as people in other arrest situations:

  • You have the right to remain silent
  • You have the right to refuse a search of your car
  • You have the right to refuse to take roadside sobriety tests (which could include walking a line, reciting the alphabet, breathing into a portable breath-testing device)

However, if you refuse any of the above requests, it's important to know that police may still arrest you for drunk driving if they have probable cause that you are drunk.

Probable Cause for the Stop

Police will stop you if they have probable cause to believe that you might be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has developed a list of things that might indicate that a driver is drunk. That list includes:

  • Taking a turn too wide
  • Straddling or crossing lane lines
  • Weaving and swerving
  • Striking or almost striking another vehicle
  • Braking too quickly
  • Speeding
  • Running red lights or stop signs

If an officer stops you for an unrelated traffic violation such as speeding, you may end up with a drunk driving charge. This could result from the officer observing the smell of alcohol coming from the car or on your breath, your slurred speech, or bloodshot eyes, which may also provide probable cause for a drunk driving evaluation.

Some states also have laws that allow police to set up roadside checkpoints where they can stop any vehicle. In some cases, those checkpoints may also have judges on hand to sign search warrants to allow vehicle searches. In this situation, you still have the right to refuse to answer questions, but it may lead to an arrest.

Once you are arrested, police will likely administer a Breathalyzer test at the police station. Every state now has an “implied consent” law that makes taking the test mandatory. You can refuse to take the test, but that may mean you face an automatic penalty, such as a driver's license suspension.

Do You Need a Lawyer for a DUI?

As soon as you have the chance to make a phone call, your first call should be to a lawyer who has experience handling drunk driving cases. You may not realize it at the time, but there may be several options for mounting a defense against the charges, such as a lack of probable cause or police not getting your permission to search your vehicle.

The potential penalties for a conviction are too high to simply plead guilty to “put it behind you” without talking to an attorney first. An attorney will put you in the best position to minimize any damage from an arrest.

Speak to an Experienced Drunk Driving Attorney Today

This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified drunk driving lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local drunk driving attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.

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