According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol-impaired driving accounts for more than a quarter of all traffic-related deaths in the United States. The criminal courts take drunk driving charges very seriously, issuing harsh penalties for anyone convicted of a DUI or DWI. People driving safely can still be charged with driving under the influence of alcohol if their blood alcohol level is barely over the limit.
Every state's drunk driving laws are a little different. In general, it is against the law to operate a motor vehicle while impaired. Impairment could include alcohol and/or drugs. It may be difficult to show that a driver was impaired to a degree where they are a safety risk. States have adopted a per se limit, where a driver is presumed impaired based on their blood alcohol content (BAC). In most states, the limit for adult drivers is 0.08% BAC. A driver with a BAC of 0.08% or higher by blood alcohol concentration is presumed impaired.
Utah has lowered its legal limit for drunk driving to 0.05% BAC. Other states are considering lowering the per se DUI limit. However, many drivers are surprised to find that they may be arrested and convicted of drunk driving even with an alcohol level that is below the limit. The police and prosecutors can use evidence of the driver's unsafe driving to show the driver was ability impaired, even with a BAC just under the limit.
Drivers under the age of 21 are not supposed to be able to have access to alcohol. Under-21 drivers with any level of alcohol in their system may be charged with an underage DUI. Many states have a “zero-tolerance" policy towards underage drinking and will charge a minor or issue a traffic infraction for driving with a BAC of 0.01% or higher. Underage drivers may also be required to submit to a roadside preliminary alcohol screening (PAS) device if they are suspected of drunk driving.
Commercial vehicle drivers with a commercial driver's license (CDL) also have a lower BAC limit. CDL drivers who are behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle have an alcohol level limit of 0.04%. A commercial driver who is convicted of a DUI may face a one-year CDL suspension. If the driver of a commercial motor vehicle gets a second DUI, they may lose their commercial driver license for life.
Most drunk driving arrests begin with a traffic stop or a sobriety checkpoint. Law enforcement officers are trained to look for the presence of alcohol on a driver's breath, an open container of alcohol, or evidence of an alcoholic beverage in the vehicle. Other signs of impaired driving may include slurred speech, conflicting statements, or admitting to having a drink or two.
After the police begin to suspect driver impairment, they may request a breath alcohol level test or breathalyzer. The breathalyzer indicates the driver's breath alcohol level but most drivers have the right to refuse a roadside breath test. Intoxicated drivers may also be asked to submit to some field sobriety testing to show the driver is under the effects of alcohol.
Driving under the influence of drugs is also considered a DUI or DWI. Drug-impaired driving includes more than just illegal drugs. A drugged driver could be under the influence of medical marijuana, prescription medication, or even over-the-counter medication. After a DUI arrest, the driver may have to submit to a blood test, which includes alcohol and drug screening. Unfortunately for drivers, blood tests may show the presence of drugs long after the effects have worn off.
There are criminal penalties for a drunk driving conviction. Penalties may depend on a number of factors, including the driver's bodily alcohol content, prior offenses, and child endangerment with a minor passenger. Criminal penalties for alcohol-impaired driving may include:
In most cases, a first-time offense is a misdemeanor. Impaired drivers may be required to serve a minimum number of days in jail, as part of sentencing requirements. However, drivers may be able to avoid jail with probation or deferred judgment.
If the driver is arrested for a subsequent offense may face felony charges. For some states, a 3rd offense or 4th offense is charged as a felony. A bodily injury DUI, reckless driving, or fatal crash may be considered a felony. As a felony, the defendant may face more than a year in prison, with mandatory minimum sentencing. A felony conviction will also result in a felony criminal record, which could limit gun ownership rights and make it harder to get a job.
Additional penalties may follow after serving the criminal sentence. Penalties for a drunk driving conviction may mean higher insurance rates, a permanent criminal record, and possibly losing your job.
There may be ways to challenge the criminal charges. Your lawyer can evaluate your case to identify the strongest possible legal defense strategies. Ways to challenge a drunk driving charge may include an improper traffic stop, chemical testing errors, or unlawful search and seizure. Before you accept a plea bargain and admit guilt, make sure you know your options.
There may be a lot at stake after a drunk driving arrest. A conviction could result in a permanent criminal record, loss of driving privileges, and even jail time. Talking to an experienced criminal defense lawyer can help you understand your rights. Take the first step now and contact a DUI attorney to discuss your case