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Elements of a DUI Offense

If you are charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the burden of proof of your guilt rests with the prosecution. The prosecutor must prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is any doubt about any one of the elements, the jury should find you not guilty. Your criminal defense attorney's job is to challenge the state's case and cast doubt on the evidence.

Drunk Driving Definition

The elements of a drunk driving offense vary by state. The elements may also depend on what type of impaired driving offense you are facing. This could include:

  • Driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol with a blood alcohol content (BAC) at 0.08% or higher
  • DUI with a high BAC
  • Underage driving while alcohol-impaired (DWAI)
  • Commercial vehicle DUI
  • Driving under the influence of drugs
  • DUI and causing a serious injury or death to someone else

In general, a drunk driving case requires showing that the driver was under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance and the driver was in control of a motor vehicle at the time. Some states refer to impaired driving as a DWI, DUI, OUI, or DWAI.

Elements of DUI: Driving

One of the primary differences in drunk driving laws of different jurisdictions has to do with the definition of driving. The laws of some states require that the person be actually driving a motor vehicle, while others require only that the person be in physical control of the motor vehicle. In some states, this could mean being arrested for DUI in your own driveway in a parked car.

The outcome of your DUI case may rely on how the driving element is defined.

A drunk driving defense attorney may be able to help you defend against a drunk driving charge by arguing that the driving element of the offense was not met based on the facts. Relevant questions in determining whether a defendant is in actual control include:

  • Where was the driver in the vehicle?
  • Where were the keys?
  • Where was the vehicle located?
  • Was the vehicle running?
  • Whether the vehicle was in an operable condition

Elements of DUI: Under the Influence

Most states have a legal limit when it comes to alcohol. If a driver has a BAC of 0.08% or higher, the driver is considered impaired, no matter how they were driving. States may also have an impaired driving definition where a driver is considered impaired if they are not safely able to operate, even if their BAC is below the limit.

BAC evidence is perhaps the best-known, while there is also field evidence and driver evidence to consider. Field evidence that is collected by law enforcement generally breaks down into five categories:

  • The driver's statements (such as "I had a few drinks.")
  • Witness, officer, or suspect testimony about erratic or unusual driving
  • Police officer testimony about the driver's performance on a field sobriety test
  • Video, audio, or photographic documentation of the scene

Driver evidence includes things about the driver that indicate their level of intoxication at the time of the arrest. It may relate to the driver's physical appearance or the presence or absence of other symptoms of alcohol intoxication. Common indicators of intoxication include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Cheeks or face are flushed red
  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to keep still
  • Difficulty maintaining balance
  • Scent of alcohol on the driver's breath

Police can also determine a driver's BAC level through a breath or blood sample test. Under implied consent laws, drivers must submit to a chemical test if they are arrested for a DUI. Refusing a chemical test may result in a license suspension, and you can still be convicted of a DUI, even without chemical test evidence.

Legal Defense Strategies

Challenging the district attorney's case may begin with the initial DUI traffic stop. If the police made an unlawful traffic stop without a reasonable suspicion that you were doing something illegal, then any evidence gathered may violate your constitutional rights. Your criminal defense lawyer may be able to have evidence thrown out of court, leaving the prosecutor without a case.

Another strategy in a drunk driving defense case is to challenge the chemical test evidence. Even though law enforcement officers like to rely on these tests, the machines may not be properly calibrated or maintained. The police may not have followed the proper chemical testing procedures. That means the court cannot rely on unreliable chemical test results.

A defense lawyer can also challenge the police officer's assessment of impairment. Standardized field sobriety tests are not always accurate. An officer could find that you "failed" the test because of a medical condition, disability, weight, lack of physical ability, improper instructions, or dangerous roadside environment.

The police may make mistakes, but they are not likely to admit those mistakes, especially during a trial. It is your defense lawyer's job to challenge the prosecutor's evidence and police officer testimony to make sure you receive a fair trial.