Possible Penalties for Drunk Driving

If you are found or plead guilty to the offense of drunk driving, there are several possible penalties you will face. Penalties for drunk drivers will vary from state to state. Generally, the penalties are progressive and become more severe for each repeat offense or the greater the blood alcohol level.

Drunk Driving Laws

While states are free to define their own legal levels of blood alcohol content (BAC) that presumes a person is drunk, Congress has established a level of 0.08 as the legal threshold, and states who wish to receive the maximum possible amounts of federal highway funds must comply with that limit. Some states are looking to lower that BAC limit, and Utah’s is the lowest in the country at 0.05%.

Impaired Driving Penalties

Drunk driving penalties are some of the harshest in the country. Driving under the influence is one of the most common criminal charges but still results in a number of penalties, including:

  • Jail time
  • Fines and fees
  • License suspension
  • Community service
  • IID restricted license
  • DUI school
  • Probation
  • Participation in victim impact panel

If driving is part of your job, the penalties for a DUI may be more severe. Commercial drivers are held to a higher standard for driving and the influence of alcohol in a commercial vehicle. Most states have a minimum blood alcohol concentration limit of 0.08%. Commercial drivers can get a commercial DUI with a BAC of 0.04% or higher. A first-time commercial DUI will generally result in a one-year CDL suspension. A second drunk driving offense may result in a lifetime commercial driver’s license ban.

Jail Time

Many states have a minimum jail sentence for drunk driving convictions, even for a 1st DUI. Generally, a first-time, non-injury DUI is a misdemeanor, resulting in no more than 1 year in the county jail. A bodily injury DUI, fatal drunk driving accident, or multiple DUIs may result in felony prison sentences of more than a year in the state penitentiary.

Even if the sentence requires a minimum number of days in jail, some states will impose probation instead of jail time. The minimum sentence may also be suspended or served as part of a work program. For a second DUI or multiple DUIs, jail may be mandatory as part of the sentence.

Financial Penalties

A DUI or DWAI can be very expensive. An impaired driver may have to pay costly fees, fines, and court costs. Even a first-time DUI can cost up to $1,000 in fines and fees or higher in some states. This is in addition to vehicle seizure, higher insurance rates, the costs of probation, and alcohol treatment programs. If anyone was injured in a drunk driving accident, the defendant may also have to pay the victim restitution.

Losing Your License

Drivers convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugged driving may lose their drivers license. For many people, losing their license is the most disruptive part of a DUI. Many drivers are surprised to find out their license will be suspended after a drunk driving arrest before they’ve had their day in court. There may be an administrative suspension and a suspension based on a conviction. Talk to your DUI defense attorney as soon as possible after an arrest to challenge the administrative per se suspension.

The license suspension or revocation period may depend on the criminal charge. The minimum license suspension period varies by state, from a minimum of 90 days license suspension up to one year. For multiple DUI or OUI convictions, there may be additional license sanctions, including license revocation, or designation as a habitual offender. To get your license back after a drunk driving conviction, you may have to wait out the suspension period, pay all fines and fees, and show proof of insurance.

Some drivers can get a restricted license before their full driving privileges are reinstated. A restricted license may limit driving to and from home, work, school, or medical services. An ignition interlock restricted license only lets drivers operate a vehicle with an IID installed.

Ignition Interlock Device

An ignition interlock device (IID) is equipment installed in the motor vehicle to prevent impaired driving. The system requires the driver to blow a “clean” breath into the device to start the car, without the presence of alcohol. If the driver consumed alcoholic beverages before trying to start the car, it would register as a failed test and the car would not start. The IID also requires rolling test samples, while the car is operating.

IIDs have backup measures to stop drivers from trying to get around the alcohol screening. This includes recording any tampering attempts, a camera to make sure other people aren’t blowing into the device, or humming requirements so the driver can’t use a balloon.

The ignition interlock device may be required for 6 months or more, depending on the impaired driving charge. The defendant is generally required to pay for the cost of the IID, including installation, rental fees, and maintenance.


As part of sentencing, a judge may impose probation so the defendant can avoid prison. Probation comes with its own challenges. The terms of probation may include checking in with the court, promises to avoid drinking alcohol, and no more arrests. Probation after a DUI may be imposed for 3 or more years. If the defendant violates probation with another drunk driving arrest, the judge may be more likely to impose more severe penalties or extend probation.

DUI School and Counseling

Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol can be a sign of substance abuse problems. Instead of throwing someone in jail, it may be better to offer help. States may require the defendant to complete an alcohol education program or alcohol treatment program. Sometimes known as DUI school, this generally includes education and counseling to address drug and alcohol problems. A drug treatment program and drug abuse counseling can also reduce the rate of subsequent offenses.

Other Consequences of a DUI Conviction

If you are charged and convicted of a felony drunk driving offense, the penalties will be even more severe. Felony drunk driving charges may include a DUI that involved a serious injury accident or fatal crash. Subsequent drunk driving offenses may increase from misdemeanor charges to a felony offense. After a felony, the defendant may have a harder time finding a job, getting housing, or be prohibited from owning a firearm.

There may be other consequences that come as the result of a drunk driving conviction. These may not be imposed by the state but can still be very costly, including:

  • Higher insurance rates
  • Permanent criminal record
  • Loss of your job
  • Stress on your family
  • Harm to your reputation

As long as the DUI stays on your driving record, your car insurance company will see you as a risk. Your insurance policy rates may double and the higher rates may continue for 3 years or more. Some insurance companies won’t cover people with drunk driving convictions.

Legal Defenses

Don’t give up after a drunk driving arrest. You may have legal defense options even if the prosecutor makes it seem like they have a solid case. Common legal defenses include where the police made mistakes during the arrest or there were problems with the chemical breath test. Talk to your attorney about your DUI or OWI case.

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