Drunk driving, sometimes referred to as “Driving Under the Influence,” or DUI, is a criminal offense punishable by jail time. The exact penalty for this crime depends on a number of factors, including whether the drunk-driver has previously committed the offense, as well as the seriousness of the offense.

What Factors Determine the Punishment for Drunk Driving?

One factor that determines the sentence for a drunk driving crime is whether the offender has previously committed the offense. A first-time offense is often considered a misdemeanor offense.

This means the offender faces the possibility of jail time of up to one year. Typically, the full sentence is not imposed. Additional penalties for a first-time offender may include:

  • Fines: Fines typically range from anywhere from $100 to $2,000;
  • Probation: The probation may be informal probation, which is a type of probation that does not require regular supervision by a probation officer; and
  • License Suspension: A drunk driving offender may have their license suspended. A first-time offender may face a suspension of up to 90 days. 
    • An offender may be able to obtain a “hardship license” that permits them to drive to and from work while their license is under suspension.

Penalties for a second-time offender, which is someone who previously committed a drunk driving offense, are more severe. This means the amount of the fine will be greater. In addition, the period of probation will be longer. The probation may be formal probation, as opposed to informal probation.

Formal probation is probation that is supervised by a probation officer, to whom the offender must regularly report. A second-time offense can be a felony, meaning the offender may have to serve more than a year in prison. A second-time offender also faces having their driver’s license revoked. The offender usually may re-apply for the license at the end of the period of revocation.

Offenders who have committed more than two drunk driving offenses may have their vehicle confiscated, or its registration cancelled. These offenders can face jail time of five years or more. In addition, repeat offenders may be subject to permanent license revocation.

Please keep in mind that these penalties can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The above information is what is typical and most often applied, but there are always external and unique circumstances (as well as different laws based on where you live) that can make the defendant face serious outcomes.

What Circumstances Can Make a DUI Penalty More Severe?

The following circumstances can increase the severity of a DUI penalty:

  • The offender substantially exceeded the speed limit (e.g., by 20 or 30 miles);
  • The offender was arrested with a very high blood alcohol level, such as 0.2%, this is often referred to as an aggravated DUI;
  • The offender was engaged in drag racing;
  • The offender refused to submit to a breathalyzer test at the scene of the crime; 
  • The offender damaged property; or
  • The offender injured or killed someone. A drunk driving offender who kills someone can be subject to manslaughter charges.

What are Zero-Tolerance Laws?

Individuals 21 or younger who commit a drunk driving offense can be subject to a state’s “zero-tolerance” law. Zero tolerance laws impose automatic penalties for drunk driving crimes. These penalties apply regardless of whether an individual is actually impaired, or whether factors that might otherwise reduce the severity of a sentence are present.

Most zero-tolerance laws prohibit drivers under 21 to operate a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration beyond a certain limit (usually 0.01% or 0.02%). Individuals who violate zero tolerance laws are subject to fines, license suspension, or license revocation. Many state zero tolerance laws subject an offender to jail time.

What Other Penalties are Drunk Driving Offenders Subject to?

Individuals convicted of a drunk driving offense may be required to attend driver safety or driver education courses. Individuals may also be required to perform community service, and to pay restitution to victims. Restitution is money paid to victims for losses they have sustained from someone’s drunk driving.

What is an Ignition Interlock?

Individuals convicted of a drunk driving defense may, if a judge orders it, have an ignition interlock device placed in their vehicle. This device is wired to a vehicle’s ignition and acts as a breathalyzer. An individual must blow into the device for the vehicle to start.

If the device detects a measurable amount of alcohol, 0.2% or higher, the vehicle will not start. An ignition interlock may retest the driver periodically. If the device detects alcohol, the device will not let the driver restart the vehicle.

The driver must wait, blow into the device again, and produce an acceptable reading for the car to start again. Tampering with or destroying the device is a crime, as is having another person blow into the device.

What Should I Do If I Have Been Arrested for a Drunk Driving Offense?

If you have been arrested or charged with a drunk driving crime, you should contact a DUI/DWI attorney with experience in drunk driving matters. Your lawyer can review the facts of your case, explain your rights, and advise you of your options. The lawyer can also represent you in court and throughout the criminal trial.