Drunk driving is a very serious illegal activity. It is prohibited in every state in the United States.
Although a DUI is reserved for driving under the influence of other intoxicants, for example, illicit drugs, and a DWI usually refers to driving while drunk from alcohol, the two may be used interchangeably. When an individual drives drunk, they operate a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, a substance known to impair their motor skills.
The state laws differ regarding what constitutes legally intoxicated. An individual, however, is typically considered legally intoxicated if their blood alcohol content level, or BAC level, reaches 0.8% or 0.10%.
If a law enforcement officer suspects an individual is driving while intoxicated, that officer will have probable cause to pull the driver over. Examples of driver conduct that may give a law enforcement officer probable cause include:
Once a driver has been pulled over, the officer may ask them to leave their vehicle and complete a test. Tests are administered to determine the driver’s sobriety and may include the following:
- A breathalyzer test: This test measures the concentration of alcohol in an individual’s breath;
- Blood or urine testing: This is not generally administered at the scene because a medical professional is required to administer the test; and
- Field sobriety tests: These tests are designed to test an individual’s balance and agility.
Drunk driving is a serious criminal offense that may be punished as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances of the case. Many states have zero-tolerance laws for minors or individuals who are under the age of 18 or 19.
This means that a minor cannot have any alcohol in their system while driving. In addition, although most states charge drunk drivers with a DUI, every state has its own criteria outlining what constitutes a drunk driving offense.
What Are Some of the Penalties for Drunk Driving?
The way drunk driving is penalized will depend on whether the crime is being treated as a misdemeanor or as a felony. Most first-time drunk driving convictions will result in a suspended driver’s license and a short jail sentence of a few days.
Most states require that repeat offenders have a device installed in their vehicle that measures their breath for alcohol. For example, a repeat DUI offender may be required to install an ignition interlock device (IID), a small handheld car breathalyzer.
The individual must use the breathalyzer test before operating their motor vehicle. The purpose of the IID is to prevent the vehicle from starting if any alcohol is detected on the driver’s breath.
Some financial penalties apply when someone drives drunk. Typically, the costs that are associated with drunk driving may include:
- Criminal fines, not to exceed $1,000 for a misdemeanor;
- Bail costs;
- Court costs;
- Attorney’s fees;
- Administrative fees for any ordered treatments or diversionary programs; and
- Increased automobile insurance premiums.
The criminal fines that are imposed will typically vary by state. There are also additional non-financial penalties for drunk driving, such as:
Some additional non-financial penalties that may occur when an individual is convicted of drunk driving may include the following:
- License suspension or restriction;
- Loss of driver’s license;
- Mandatory community service; and
- The inability to continue working jobs that require driving a vehicle, for example, a taxi cab or a truck driver.
If any other crimes were committed with drunk driving, the punishment would almost always be harsher. For example, if an individual was seriously injured or killed due to the actions of a drunk driver.
In that case, there would be a high probability that the defendant would receive additional jail time and other punishments because they committed a serious crime in addition to driving drunk.
Are There Any Long-Term Consequences for Drunk Driving?
The consequences an individual may face for driving while they are impaired do not stop once their sentence is served, and their fines are paid. Numerous long-term effects may increase the overall cost of their DUI or DWI conviction.
Many individuals do not consider these effects because they are not immediately identifiable, for example:
- Missing income while serving a jail or prison sentence;
- Job loss while serving a jail or prison sentence;
- Paying for some other form of transportation to and from work; and
- Loss of future job opportunities due to the individual having a DUI on their criminal record.
Are There Any Defenses to Drunk Driving?
There are a few defenses an individual may use to a charge of drunk driving. However, the availability of these defenses will vary depending on the specifics of their case.
Common DUI or DWI defenses include:
- Inadmissible or faulty test results;
- No actual impairment or mistake of fact;
- The police had no probable cause;
- The officer did not actually witness the defendant driving; and
- Rising BAC, or that the defendant’s BAC rose between the time of driving and the actual test.
There are also other types of defenses to drunk driving, which may be used depending on the specifics of each individual case. Come of the most common defenses to drunk driving include:
- Inadmissible or faulty test results: An individual’s BAC level may be tested through a device. If a defendant can prove that the device was somehow inaccurate or faulty, that may serve as a drunk driving defense;
- No impairment: This defense may be utilized when the driver was not actually drunk or impaired at the time of testing;
- No probable cause: As previously noted, a law enforcement officer must have probable cause to pull over a driver and test them for impairment;
- The officer needs probable cause to stop or arrest an individual for drunk driving;
- Failure to establish probable cause may serve as a defense; and
- Not driving at the time: Some states require that the law enforcement officer must actually witness driving while intoxicated. This means that the defendant must have been driving at the time the officer took action;
- If the officer only observed the individual sitting in a parked car, they may not have probable cause to make an arrest.
Some states will determine that an individual committed a DUI if they were in a parked vehicle and the keys were in the ignition. For example, if an individual falls asleep in their car after drinking, whether or not they can be charged with DUI may depend on where the keys were in their vehicle and where they were sleeping.
It is important to remember that all of these defenses are applied case-by-case. Because of this, it is always best to consult with a local lawyer to determine what defense will work for a defendant based on their situation.
Do I Need an Attorney if I Have Been Charged with Drunk Driving?
If an individual is facing a DUI or DWI charge, you must consult with a DUI/DWI attorney. Because the applicable laws vary by state, your criminal defense attorney can help you understand what laws apply to your case and your rights.
Additionally, your attorney can determine if any legal defenses are available in your case. Finally, your attorney can represent you in court as needed.