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DUI Sentencing: Possible Punishments

If you were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, you may be facing many criminal penalties. Most first-time DUI offenses are charged as a misdemeanor. However, drivers may face felony DUI charges, based on aggravated factors. It is important for you to understand the possible penalties involved with an impaired driving charge, to decide how to handle your case. Contact a criminal defense lawyer for help.

How a Judge Determines DUI Sentencing

A defendant can be found guilty by a judge or jury, or plead guilty as part of a plea agreement. Then, it is up to the judge to determine the penalties in the sentencing hearing. The judge may have sentencing guidelines, which include a maximum sentence and minimum sentence for driving under the influence. In most cases, the judge will stay within the guidelines.

Some judges have a lot of discretion in determining a criminal sentence. Aggravating factors could increase the penalties and mitigating factors could reduce the penalties. During the sentencing hearing, the judge can hear from the defendant before issuing a sentence. If the defendant takes responsibility for their actions and has no prior record, the judge may show some leniency. However, if a person has a long criminal history and shows no remorse for their actions, a judge may issue harsher penalties.

Plea Agreement Penalties

If the defendant and prosecutor reach an agreement, the defendant will plead guilty or no contest in exchange for a plea deal. The prosecutor may reduce some charges, drop charges, or request the minimum sentence. It may still be up to the judge to accept the recommended sentence. A plea bargain may allow a first-time impaired driver to get probation and avoid jail time.

Jail Time

Depending on the jurisdiction, many laws have a mandatory minimum amount of time a drunk driver has to spend in jail, even for a first DUI. For example, the minimum jail time in Arizona for a DUI is 24 hours in jail. The minimum time for a first offense DUI in Oklahoma is 10 days in jail. Other states will offer a suspended sentence, even if the state has a minimum sentence.

Jail time for subsequent drunk driving offenses generally increases, with up to a year in jail for misdemeanor offenses. Other aggravated factors could increase the jail time for drunk drivers. Some factors which could increase jail time include:

  • High blood alcohol concentration (BAC)
  • Child passenger in the vehicle
  • Excessive speed
  • Reckless driving
  • DUI on a suspended license

Prison Sentences

Prison is generally reserved for those who have committed especially serious drunk driving offenses. A person who is convicted of a felony or aggravated DUI might be sent to prison instead of jail. A person may also be sent to prison as opposed to jail if the sentence is for longer than 12 months. DUI criminal offenses that may result in a felony conviction include:

  • Serious injury accident DUI
  • Fatal drunk driving accident
  • Multiple DUIs or DWIs

Felony charges for multiple DUIs vary by state. Many states automatically consider multiple driving while intoxicated offenses to be charged as a felony. In states like New York or Oklahoma, a second DUI within a 10-year-period is a felony. In California and Ohio, a 4th DUI within the lookback period is a felony. In Washington state, a fifth offense is a felony. However, some states like Maryland and Pennsylvania do not automatically treat subsequent offenses as felonies.

License Suspension

One of the most disruptive parts of a first-time DUI conviction is losing your license. Most states will suspend a driver’s privileges for 3-months to a year after a first offense. Drivers may face extended license suspension periods for driving with a high blood alcohol content.

Each subsequent offense may result in extended suspension periods. A 2nd or 3rd offense could have the driver’s license revoked or suspended for up to 2 years. With a license revocation or suspended license, the individual cannot get behind the wheel until their driving privileges are reinstated. Driving on a suspended license may result in additional criminal charges or having your probation revoked.

Drivers may be able to get a restricted license or hardship license before the end of the full suspension period. This may limit drivers to going to and from work, school, counseling, and court.

Administrative License Suspension

Many states also have an administrative license suspension that is separate from the criminal process. The motor vehicle agency or DMV can suspend your driving privileges, even before you are convicted of any crime. Based on the arrest alone, the police officer can take your license and issue a temporary license. If you want to avoid an administrative suspension, you may have to request a hearing with the state’s vehicle agency to keep your license until you’ve had your day in court.


Many drivers facing a drunk driving charge can get probation instead of jail time. Probation is a common option for those who have no prior record of impaired driving violations. Even though you can avoid jail time, probation can still be restrictive. You may be on probation for up to 3 years or more. Conditions of probation may include:

  • Submitting to random drug testing
  • Driving with an ignition interlock device (IID)
  • Attending substance abuse counseling
  • Performing community service
  • Abstinence from alcohol
  • Making scheduled court appearance

IID (Ignition Interlock Device) Restricted License

An ignition interlock device does not allow drivers with over a specified amount of alcohol in their system to start a vehicle. The IID prevents drivers from starting or operating a motor vehicle when they may be intoxicated. Drivers may have to drive with an IID until their suspension period is up, and then they can apply to get their license reinstated. An IID restricted license is generally not available for drivers who were arrested for driving under the influence of drugs.

DUI School and Alcohol Treatment Programs

Many states require alcohol education and substance abuse treatment programs as part of probation or as a requirement to get the driver’s license reinstated. These include education and counseling to try and reduce the rate of repeat offenders. For drivers arrested for a drug DUI, they may be sentenced to a drug treatment program or drug abuse counseling as part of probation. Participants are generally required to pay the cost of the treatment programs.

Community Service

Sentencing may also require a minimum number of hours or days of community service. Community service may include volunteering with a charitable organization or community project. Not all volunteer opportunities will apply to your community service hours, so make sure the activity is approved in order to complete your probationary requirements.

Before pleading guilty to a DUI and getting sentenced to mandatory jail time, talk to an experienced lawyer about your case. You may have a stronger legal defense than you know and can challenge the case to avoid serious criminal penalties. Contact a criminal defense attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.

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