Drunk driving is defined as operating an automobile after consuming alcohol. Legally, the term refers to driving while one’s blood alcohol is above the blood alcohol content limit (BAC) prescribed by state law. Depending on the state, the BAC limit is either 0.08% or 0.10%. Some states strictly enforce Zero Tolerance laws for drivers under 21 years of age (0.00 or 0.01% BAC limit).     

Drunk driving is also known by several other names, such as Driving Under the Influence (DUI), Driving While Impaired (DWI), or Operating Under the Influence (OUI). While “drunk driving” usually refers to the consumption of alcohol, terms such as DUI or DWI sometimes include intoxication through other substances such as illegal drugs.  

What are the Punishments for Drunk Driving?

Every year countless lives are lost due to drunk driving accidents. Therefore the legal punishments associated with drunk driving are aimed at deterring (preventing) the recurrence of drunk driving. 
Sentencing for drunk driving largely depends on whether the incident was a first-time offense. First time offenses can sometimes result in a traffic citation or short-term license suspension. Legal consequences increase in severity if the person is cited for repeat or habitual offenses. Repeat offenses can result serious criminal charges and even felony charges. Also, drunk driving cases involving vehicular homicide or serious injury result in greater punishments.
In general, punishments for drunk driving can include:
Legal punishments –
  • Monetary fines: first time offenses usually involve fines of a few hundred dollars. Repeat offenses may involve fines exceeding $500
  • Incarceration: first-time offenses can result in jail time of less than one year. Repeat offenses can be punishable by a sentence in a state prison facility for more than one year
  • Probation: Some offenders may be eligible for a probation program
  • Suspension, Revocation, or Restriction of Driver’s License: The Department of Motor Vehicles may issue a temporary or indefinite loss of driving privileges
  • Restitution: The court may order the defendant to reimburse the plaintiff for any losses suffered from the drunk driving incident. Punitive damages can be required if the case involves malice or criminal intent to cause harm
  • Criminal charges: Serious or repeat offenses can lead to criminal misdemeanor or possibly felony charges. Misdemeanors are punishable by fines and jail time of less than one year, while felonies can result in the punishment of more than one year in a state prison and increased fines
Alternative sentencing methods –
  • DUI/Alcoholics Anonymous Classes: If the person is a repeat or habitual offender, a judge may order rehabilitation programs in addition to legal punishments
  • Home Monitoring: In lieu of jail time, a judge may order the person to submit to regular alcohol testing and home monitoring, also known as “house arrest”
  • Community service: May be available in lieu of jail time; usually involves working with a probation officer
  • Vehicle Ignition Interlock Devices: These are devices that require the driver to blow into a built-in breathalyzer device in order to start the car
  • Vehicle impoundment or confiscation: The judge may order the car be impounded or confiscated at the owner’s expense. Usually reserved for repeat offenses or cases involving serious injury or death
Drunk driving can also have several undesirable effects in other areas of life –
  • Insurance policies: Drunk driving charges will result in drastic increases in driver’s insurance premiums
  • Loss of citizen’s privileges: Criminal charges and especially felony cases can lead to a loss of rights such as the right to vote or the right to own a gun
  • Deportation: Habitual drunk driving offenses can sometimes be a grounds for deportation when citizenship is an issue, especially when combined with other charges or offenses

Are There Any Defenses to a Drunk Driving Charge?

There are a number of defenses that can be used to fight a drunk driving charge. Some common defenses to drunk driving charges include:

  • No probable cause: A police officer must have a reason to pull you over. An improper stop with no justification can result in the evidence being thrown out.
  • Defects in the breathalyzer: Sometimes breathalyzers are defective and provide inadequate B.A.C levels.
  • Involuntary intoxication: A defendant did not voluntarily get intoxicated.
  • Challenging a field sobriety test: The test that was conducted by the officer was done improperly or you had a physical condition that affected your performance. 
  • Rising Blood Alcohol Concentration:  Defendant claims to have been driving while their BAC was under the legal limit, but it rose as the field sobriety test was administered. This can happen sometimes as alcohol takes some time to absorb in the system.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Drunk driving charges are very serious and are associated with very severe punishments under the law. If you are being charged with drunk driving, you should contact a DUI/DWI lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney will be able to explain to you the DUI laws of your state. You can discuss with attorney what your possible options are and how you can minimize the legal consequences.