If you are pulled over and found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you are likely to be charged with driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI). (Learn about the difference between DUI vs. DWI.) Depending on the state in which the alleged crime took place as well as the number and severity of factors against you, you may be charged with misdemeanor DUI, felony for DUI or, in cases involving an accident and/or injury, something far more serious. In all states, the threshold for driving under the influence is .08 percent blood alcohol content (BAC).
A misdemeanor DUI charge and conviction may result in fines, driver's license suspension, a short jail sentence and other repercussions, but all of these penalties pale in comparison to those doled out to felony DUI offenders. In some cases the accused can have his or her charges reduced to a misdemeanor DUI through a plea bargain, but this is not always possible and is not always the best option. Only an experienced DUI lawyer can tell you for sure. If you have been arrested and charged with DUI, it is very important that you contact an attorney immediately. An attorney can help you navigate the consequences, from the cost of DUI bail to the resulting charge itself.
Your DUI charges will depend largely on the state in which the alleged offense took place and the number and severity of "aggravating factors" things the court holds against the accused when determining the charges.
In many states, first, second and third DUI offenses within a period of 10 years and without aggravating factors result in a charge of misdemeanor DUI. Other states regularly charge third-time offenders with felony DUI, regardless of the circumstances. In New York, offenders are generally charged with felony DUI on the second offense.
Over the years, DUI laws have become more and more strict. Many states have passed "habitual offender" laws that impose severe penalties on DUI offenders. A motorist who causes an accident that harms another party is likely to face very serious charges, especially if someone is killed. Charges such as vehicular manslaughter or even vehicular homicide are very real possibilities in such cases. Jail for DUI is essentially guaranteed in such instances.
In order to determine the appropriate charges and penalties, the prosecutor and the judge in a DUI case will look at any aggravating and mitigating factors. Aggravating factors may include any or all of the following:
- Prior DUI offenses (if any)
- Blood alcohol content (BAC) or level of intoxication
- Whether an accident was caused by intoxication
- Whether any of the passengers or others involved were minors
- Refusal to submit to a breath test
- DUI in a school zone
Mitigating factors, or things that weigh in favor of the accused, may include:
- Military service
- No prior convictions
- Successful attendance in and completion of DUI prevention classes or other DUI classes
- Participation in alcohol and/or drug treatment programs
The judge in your case may or may not have the authority to reduce your charges to a misdemeanor DUI based on mitigating factors. Contact an attorney in your area to get DUI law advice and to learn about the laws in your state and determine your best defense strategy.
Penalties for a misdemeanor DUI vary by state. In California, penalties for DWI for a first-time offender include three years of probation, fines and fees of $1,500, driver's license restriction for three months (though the DMV suspends it for six months) and an alcohol education program lasting three months or longer. In Utah the penalties include a three-month driver's license restriction, possible supervised probation, a screening and assessment education course and a minimum DUI fine of $700 (plus a surcharge).
A second misdemeanor DUI within 10 years may result in slightly or possibly far more serious penalties, depending on the state. In California, for example, a second misdemeanor DUI offense carries many of the same penalties as a first offense but also means a sentence of 10 days in jail, a more extensive alcohol education program and a longer driver's license suspension from the DMV (two years, possibly replaced by a restricted license after one year). Those charged with a third misdemeanor within 10 years face 120 days in jail and driver's license suspension for three years (with the possibility of a restricted license after two years). Those charged with DUI for the fourth time in a 10-year span are charged with felony DUI.
If you are charged with a misdemeanor DUI you may also have to perform community service, and your car will likely be impounded. In order to obtain a restricted license you may have to have an ignition interlock installed in your car.
For more information on DUI penalties, please visit our article on this subject.
A DUI arrest can be an intimidating and confusing experience, and a DUI conviction can have life-altering consequences. As a result, it is very important that you take whatever steps you can to devise a solid defense strategy aimed at lessening the charges and minimizing the penalties. If you have been arrested and charged with DUI or DWI, an experienced attorney will help you attain the best possible outcome.
In addition to your court case, if you are arrested for DUI the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or similar agency in your state may initiate a separate case.