Driving under the influence (DUI) of drugs or alcohol is a serious offense. The consequences can be quite severe. Depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstances of the case, penalties can range from any one or a combination of the following:
- Monetary fines
- Required performance of a certain number of hours of community service
- Required completion of an addiction treatment program (inpatient or outpatient, depending on the defendant’s level of addiction and the severity of the DUI (e.g., was a third party hurt or how much the defendant was over the legal limit))
- Revocation (cancellation) of the defendant’s driver’s license revocation
- Jail or prison time
Punishments vary from state to state, but one consequence is universal: the driver’s license will be suspended for some time. Mississippi takes the license away for 120 days. In Minnesota, it is 90 days.
There is a way to get around this. Most states will allow the driver to keep their license if an “ignition interlock” device is installed. This is a monitor that requires the driver to breathe into an apparatus that tests for the existence of any alcohol whatsoever. If the machine detects alcohol, the ignition will not start, and the car cannot be driven.
What is a DUI?
All drivers are subject to the rules of the road, including impaired driving laws. It is against the law to drive under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both. DUI is the most common name for this type of offense, but in some jurisdictions, DUI is known as driving while intoxicated (DWI) or operating under the influence (OUI).
DUI and Alcohol
Generally, a person driving an automobile with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.08 percent or higher is considered legally drunk. For drivers under age 21, there is a zero-tolerance policy across the country for underage drinking. They may get something akin to a DUI if their BAC registers any alcohol at all.
A blood or breathalyzer test can measure and determine the BAC level of an individual. The charges and penalties can be stiffened or aggravated depending on where one lives if the BAC registers well above the 0.08 percent threshold.
DUI and Drugs
It is also illegal to drive while under the influence of drugs, including marijuana. While some states have legalized marijuana, it is still against the law to drive and be impaired by marijuana. Law enforcement officials suspecting drug or alcohol use by a driver may employ field sobriety tests to gauge a person’s ability to function behind the wheel of a motor vehicle properly. Drug levels in a person’s body can be determined through blood and urine tests.
Field Sobriety Tests
To determine whether a driver is legally drunk, there are several tests designed to measure a person’s sobriety. When a driver is stopped by a police officer on suspicion of drunk driving, the officer will most likely ask them to perform several of these field sobriety tests to determine whether alcohol has impaired their ability to drive.
Some of the most common field sobriety tests are:
- Alcohol/Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus: The officer holds a pen or a flashlight approximately twelve inches from the driver’s face. The officer directs the driver to watch the pen or flashlight. The officer will move the object from side to side and will look for jerking of the eyeball to the side as possible. The driver’s eyeball will involuntarily jerk more frequently the higher the driver’s BAC is.
- Standing On One Foot While Counting: The driver is asked to stand on one foot with their hands at their side and the other foot extended. The officer is looking to see if the driver can stand easily or if they fall. If they cannot perform the test, that is a sign that they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Walking An Imaginary Line: The driver is directed to walk a straight line while touching one foot’s heel to the other’s toe. Again, the officer looks to see if alcohol or drugs have affected the driver’s balance.
- Finger To Nose: With their eyes closed and arms extended, the driver is instructed to touch their nose with an index finger. If they cannot complete this test successfully, they may be impaired.
- Recite The Alphabet: The officer asks the driver to recite the alphabet. They may ask for the alphabet in its entirety or a portion of it, and the officer may ask the driver to recite the alphabet backwards.
How Do Alcohol and Drugs Impair Driving?
The use of alcohol and drugs can affect people differently. Factors such as a person’s weight and diet can affect how quickly alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream.
On average, someone who weighs approximately 150 pounds and drinks four beers in an hour will reach the 0.08 percent BAC threshold. With a 0.08 percent BAC, an individual will have difficulty controlling the speed of their vehicle, trouble reasoning, and difficulty processing information.
If that same person who weighs 150 pounds drinks seven beers in an hour instead of four, that will elevate their BAC to 0.15 percent. At this heightened BAC level, a driver will have serious issues controlling their vehicle and staying focused on the road.
Drugs, including legally prescribed drugs, can alter one’s judgment when driving. Marijuana use may impair a person while driving because it can make them sleepy, alter their memory, confuse their sense of timing, and impact their reaction time.
What Factors Will Be Considered in Determining DUI Punishment?
As noted earlier, penalties for DUI can vary from state to state. However, no matter which state’s law is involved, the punishment for each impaired driver will depend on several similar factors. These can include:
- The driver’s BAC level – how drunk was the driver? The higher the BAC, the stiffer the penalties. This factor alone can raise the level of the crime from misdemeanor to felony
- Is this the driver’s first DUI? If so, the punishment will be relatively light
- Is the driver a repeat offender? If so, the punishment will, of course, be steeper and may raise the level of the offense from misdemeanor to felony
- Was the vehicle special in some way – e.g., a commercial vehicle such as a taxi, or a school bus?
- Was there a child in the vehicle at the time of the offense? This will increase the severity of the punishment
- As a result of the DUI, there was an accident causing injuries. That will increase the severity of the punishment. It also exposes the driver to facing a civil lawsuit filed by the family of the people who were injured
Are DUI Tests Reliable?
Some research has indicated that DUI tests may be unreliable. Several field sobriety tests are considered to be extremely inaccurate. An example of this would be how the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test is considered so unreliable that its results are generally excluded from evidence during a court trial.
It is also important to note that such tests are generally considered discriminatory against those with physical or mental impairments. For example, entirely sober persons with a condition affecting their balance may fail a field sobriety test.
In addition, it has been argued that field sobriety tests are subjective because they depend on the individual perceptions of the law enforcement officer. Two officers observing the same field sobriety tests may come to opposite conclusions about whether the driver will likely be under the influence.
Another field test is widely considered to be reasonably accurate but, in fact, can be error-prone. This is the breathalyzer test. Breathalyzers measure alcohol concentration in a person’s breath. Judges recently threw out more than 30,000 inaccurate tests in one year. The causes were human errors and lax oversight.
Breathalyzer tests can be inaccurate if:
- The driver has used a foreign substance that the breathalyzer incorrectly thinks is alcohol (such as mouthwash)
- The breathalyzer has not been calibrated recently or was calibrated incorrectly
- Software glitches are known to occur
- While it is rarely done, the person should be given the test several times to ensure consistent results. This is especially true for fuel cell sensor technology models of breathalyzers
- Human error can occur: the officer administering the test might be distracted and not use the machine correctly
Should I Contact a DUI Attorney for Help with a Suspended License?
If you or someone you know has been charged with a DUI, it is imperative to contact an experienced and knowledgeable DUI lawyer in your area as soon as possible. A DUI charge is a serious offense with serious consequences.