Elements of a DUI Offense

Driving under the influence is governed by the law of the jurisdiction in which it occurs. Thus, state or federal law may apply in a drunk driving case. The different relevant laws may vary widely from one jurisdiction to another, but there are several elements of the offense that are common in most jurisdictions. What follows is a general overview of the definitions and required proofs involved in a DUI case.

Drunk Driving Definition

Most jurisdictions define drunk driving to include an element of driving and an element of being intoxicated. A state law definition might be as simple as operating a vehicle on a highway or road while at the same time being under the influence of alcohol. Typically, blood alcohol concentration is used as a measure of intoxication, but it is possible to be charged and convicted of drunk driving even when the driver's BAC is below the legal limit. A number of states have established DUI per se regulations, which make it illegal to operate a motor vehicle if the driver has any level of alcohol in his or her system or to drive with a BAC level in excess of the statutory maximum, even if the driver has driven perfectly.

The charge is not referred to as driving under the influence in all jurisdictions. Rather, it may be called driving while intoxicated (DWI), operating under the influence of intoxicating liquor (OUI), driving while ability impaired (DWAI) or any one of several other terms.

Elements of DUI: Driving

One of the primary potential differences in DUI 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 actual physical control of the motor vehicle or that he or she is operating a motor vehicle. These definitional differences may seem trivial, but they are not exactly synonymous, and the outcome of a DUI case may rely on how the driving element is defined. A DUI lawyer may be able to help a client defend a DUI charge by arguing that the driving element of the offense was not met based on the facts of the case.

A number of questions may be relevant to the determination of whether the driving element of the offense has been satisfied. For example, the person charged may have been in a motor vehicle while the vehicle was not running. In some jurisdictions, this will satisfy the driving element, while in others it will not.

It is not uncommon in DUI cases for there to be a question regarding whether the person charged was using a car to drive it, or as shelter. The courts have established factors, which also vary by jurisdiction, to help with the question of whether driving has occurred in a particular case. Generally speaking, the following may be relevant to the analysis:

  • Where the driver was in the vehicle, e.g., in the driver's seat or the back seat
  • Where the keys were, e.g., in the ignition or the person's pocket
  • Where the vehicle was, e.g., on the road or in a field
  • Whether or not the vehicle was in operable condition

Elements of DUI: Under the Influence

Regardless of jurisdiction, law enforcement officers typically make use of one or more of three types of evidence to support a DUI charge. Blood alcohol concentration evidence is perhaps the best-known, while field evidence and driver evidence may also be used.

A driver's BAC level may be determined via his or her breath, blood or urine. Breath tests are the most common, and officers often use Breathalyzer devices on site to determine the driver's blood alcohol concentration. In many cases, a blood or urine test is conducted by medical personnel at a hospital or other medical facility following a preliminary breath test. The technology used to test BAC has improved over the years, and prosecutors can increasingly present reliable evidence of a driver's intoxication based on these tests. They are not infallible though, and an effective defense strategy in many cases is to attack the validity or veracity of relevant BAC tests. A driver usually has the right to refuse a BAC test, but doing so may result in an automatic administrative suspension of driving privileges in many jurisdictions.

Field evidence that is collected by law enforcement generally breaks down into five categories:

  • Statements of an incriminating nature made by the driver
  • Witness, officer or suspect testimony about the performance of the driver during a field sobriety test
  • Witness, officer or suspect testimony about erratic or unusual driving
  • Witness, officer or suspect testimony about the physical appearance or conduct of the driver
  • Video, audio or photographic documentation of the scene where the individual was arrested or driving

Driver evidence includes things about the driver that indicate his or her level of intoxication at the time of the encounter with law enforcement. It may relate to the physical appearance of the driver or the presence or absence of other symptoms of intoxication. Common indicators of intoxication include:

  • The driver's eyes are bloodshot, glassy or red
  • The driver is disheveled with regard to his or her clothing or dress
  • The driver's face is unshaven or his hair is not combed
  • The driver's cheeks or face are flushed red
  • The driver is slurring his or her speech
  • The driver has the scent of alcohol on his or her breath

An Attorney's Help in a DUI Case

Whether the drunk driving charge is a misdemeanor or a felony, an attorney with experience in criminal defense law may be able to help. In misdemeanor cases, an attorney may be able to negotiate a plea bargain with prosecutors or argue against the admissibility of evidence. If critical evidence is deemed inadmissible, the prosecution may have a more difficult time proving all of the elements of the charge. The assistance of an attorney may be even more important in felony DUI cases, which carry greater penalties for conviction. An attorney may be able to target weaknesses in the prosecution's case to secure an acquittal or convince the prosecution to agree to a lesser charge.

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.

Your Next Step:

Enter your location below to get connected with a qualified Drunk Driving attorney today.

Additional Drunk Driving Articles

Search LawInfo's Drunk Driving Resources

Related Topics In This Section