Basics of DUI Laws

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 What is a DUI?

The acronym DUI stands for driving under the influence. Each state in the United States has a version of a DUI statute which prohibits the operation of a motor vehicle while being under the influence or intoxicated by a substance that is known to impair an individual’s motor skills.

There are some states which have different classifications for DUIs involving different substances such as alcohol, illegal drugs, or over the counter medications. Some states also include different types of vehicles such as bicycles, mopeds, or golf carts.

Other names which a state may use to identify the offense of DUI include:

  • DWI: driving while intoxicated;
  • OUI: operating under the influence; and
  • OMVI: operating a motor vehicle intoxicated.

What Substances are Included in DUI Laws?

Any substance which impairs an individual’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle can be included in a state’s laws. This may also include legal substances.

Alcohol is the most commonly included legal substance. However, there are other substances which may be included in a DUI charge. These substances include:

  • Illicit or illegal contraband drugs, such as:
    • heroin;
    • cocaine;
    • PCP; and
    • other drugs;
  • Marijuana;
  • Prescription medication such as:
    • painkillers;
    • sleeping meds;
    • muscle relaxers; and
  • Over the counter medicines, including antihistamines, such as Benadryl.

If an individual is prescribed medications that come with a warning such as, “do not operate heavy machinery,” it is likely the use of this medication while driving could result in a DUI charge.

How do Police Test for Intoxication in a DUI Stop?

When an individual is stopped, or pulled over, and the law enforcement officer suspects they are intoxicated, they may perform field sobriety tests. Common tests used by law enforcement during a traffic stop to determine if an individual is driving under the influence include:

A field sobriety test occurs when a law enforcement officer asks a driver to step out of their vehicle and perform a series of activities that are designed to test their balance and agility. These tests allow a law enforcement officer to observe the individual’s behavior and draw conclusions regarding their possible impairment. These tests include:

  • The one leg stand;
  • The walk and turn;
  • The finger to nose; and
  • The observation of any odors of alcohol or other substances such as marijuana.

A chemical breath test may be performed on site or at a law enforcement station. This test is performed by a breathalyzer which measures the concentration of alcohol.

An individual may also request that a blood or urine test be performed, as these are often most accurate. For these tests, the individual will be taken to a medical professional who will collect a specimen. It will then be tested by a laboratory and the results will show the level of concentration.

What is Implied Consent as it Pertains to My Driver’s License?

Each state in the United States has a version of implied consent as it pertains to a driver’s license. This is often written on the back of a driver’s license.

It states that as a condition of receiving a driver’s license, an individual consents to future chemical testing for alcohol or drugs upon their arrest or an investigation for a DUI. Chemical testing often includes a breathalyzer test or a blood and urine test at a hospital.

An individual may refuse to take the tests. However, they may be subject to additional penalties and fines as well as the suspension of their license, depending on the state laws.

It is important to remember that driver’s licenses are regulated by the government. If an individual does not comply with the requirements for having a driver’s license and safely operating a vehicle, the government has a right to revoke the license.

What is “Per Se” Intoxication?

Several states have per se intoxication laws which provide that if an individual has a .08 blood alcohol concentration, then they are presumed to be intoxicated even if there is no other evidence of their impairment. In certain states, such as Colorado, per se laws regarding marijuana have been enacted where 5 nanograms of active THC in the blood can be considered per se under the influence while driving.

What are Zero Tolerance Laws?

There are many states that have zero tolerance laws for drivers that are under age and have any alcohol in their system. Pursuant to these laws, any amount of alcohol, even a small glass, may cause a minor to be subjected to a DUI conviction.

However, many states promote diversion programs for young adults who qualify which can provide probation as well as treatment instead of a conviction.

What is the Ignition Interlock Device?

If an individual has been convicted of a DUI, they may be required to have an ignition interlock device installed on their vehicle. This device prevents the vehicle from being started unless the driver blows into the attached breathalyzer with no alcohol in their system.

If the individual has any concentration of alcohol, the vehicle will be prohibited from starting. An ignition interlock device may be required in some states when a DUI conviction involved a particularly high concentration of alcohol or by statute in order for the individual to avoid having their driver’s license suspended. However, in the majority of cases, the defendant is responsible for paying for the installation of the device as well as the program administration fees, which can cost hundreds of dollars or more.

What Happens to My License After a DUI Stop?

Once an individual has been arrested for a DUI, the majority of states suspend their driver’s license immediately pending their court date. If the individual is convicted of a DUI, they may face a longer suspension or even a revocation of their driver’s license, especially if it is their second offense or they have committed multiple offenses.

There may be other restrictions placed on their driver’s license as well, including:

  • Having the license restricted to driving for work or school purposes only;
  • Complying with an ignition interlock device;
  • Not being able to imbibe any alcohol or substance while driving even if it is within the legal limit;
  • Being prohibited from transporting children or other passengers;
  • Prohibition of driving a vehicle for pay, such as a taxi; and/or
  • Revocation of a secondary license, including CDL or motorcycle licenses.

What are the Possible Penalties for a DUI Conviction?

Every state has different penalties for a DUI conviction. The penalties may also vary in subsequent convictions.

Common penalties that an individual may face for a DUI conviction include:

  • Suspension or revocation of the individual’s driver’s license;
  • Fines and court costs;
  • Incarceration, particularly for subsequent offenders;
  • Court ordered alcohol or drug rehabilitation or education; and/or
  • Ignition interlock installation.

While a DUI is not always charged as a felony, it is possible to be charged with a felony DUI. Each state has different requirements as to what offenses quality for felony DUI. However, generally, repeat offenders or individuals who injured or killed another individual while driving under the influence will face automatic felony DUI charges.

Do I Need a Lawyer for My DUI Case?

It is essential to have the assistance of an experienced DUI/DWI lawyer if you are facing DUI charges of any kind. Your lawyer can review your case, evaluate the reliability of any testing done, and help preserve your rights. Your lawyer will also represent you during any court appearances as well as advise you on how your jurisdiction handles DUI cases.


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