While all 50 states outlaw driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI), substantial differences exist in specific laws, allowable blood alcohol content limits, penalties, and license revocation procedures. Here is an overview of how DUI/DWI legal consequences vary across the United States.
Blood Alcohol Concentration Limits
Every state sets a legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit of 0.08% for drivers 21 years or older. For commercial drivers, the limit is a lower 0.04% BAC nationwide. And there is a zero-tolerance policy for drivers under 21 – any detectable amount of alcohol can warrant a DUI/DWI.
But at certain higher BAC thresholds, states impose greater penalties. For example, in California, a first offense DUI may be a misdemeanor with 0.08% BAC but becomes a felony at 0.15% BAC. Harsher sentencing applies at the 0.15% level.
In some states like Georgia, the offense becomes an “aggravated DUI” at 0.15%, doubling fines and jail time. Many states categorize BAC 0.17% or 0.18% and above as “high rate of alcohol” or “excessive intoxication,” elevating penalties further. So BAC level plays a major role in DUI sanctions.
Mandatory Minimum Jail Sentences
While DUI/DWI rarely results in jail time for first offenses with no injuries or accidents involved, a handful of states impose mandatory minimum jail sentences, even for first convictions.
For example, Arizona, Kentucky, New York and Pennsylvania require at least 24 hours in jail for first offenses. Nevada and Ohio mandate at least 2 days in jail. South Dakota ups this to 30 days minimum jail time. And Montana requires 48 hours in jail for even first DUIs.
In these states, judges have no discretion to let first-time offenders off without jail time, no matter the circumstances. Jail time duration quickly escalates with repeat offenses in states with mandatory minimums.
Length of License Suspensions
Administrative driver’s license suspension is common for a first DUI/DWI in all states, typically 1-3 months. But again, some states take a harder line:
- Maine – Suspends licenses for at least 150 days first offense.
- Florida – Mandates 6-12 month suspension even for first DUIs.
- Illinois – Suspends first-time offender licenses for 2 full years.
Then for repeat DUIs/DWIs within 5 years, Illinois imposes license revocations of at least 5 years. South Carolina revokes licenses for 5 years as well for second DUIs within 10 years. And Oklahoma mandates a full 10 year license revocation after just two DUI offenses in any timeframe.
So you can see how license suspension durations ramp up quickly in the strictest states. Limited privileges may be granted after a certain period through use of interlock devices.
Vehicle Impoundment and Forfeiture
To really impair drivers’ mobility after a DUI/DWI, some states allow impounding or forfeiting the arrestee’s vehicle. States like Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio enable vehicles used in a DUI offense to be seized for mandatory periods. In Alabama and South Carolina, vehicle forfeiture can even be permanent for repeat DUI offenses.
No Plea Bargains Allowed
Most states permit plea bargains in DUI/DWI cases to reduce charges in exchange for a guilty plea. But Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and Georgia prohibit DUI charge plea bargaining. Judges in these states cannot amend DUI charges to lesser offenses like reckless driving. All DUI charges must be fully prosecuted.
So in these areas, defendants have less flexibility in navigating the legal aftermath of a DUI arrest. They face the full repercussions.
Mandatory Alcohol or Drug Treatment Programs
Many states require first offenders to complete alcohol education or substance abuse treatment programs ranging from 12 hours to 90 days or longer. But Oregon, Kansas, and Minnesota mandate alcohol dependency treatment programs for all first-time DUI offenders. Even those demonstrating no addiction issues must enroll in mandatory rehab.
Costly Fines for All Offenders
Most states impose fines between $500-$1000 for first offenses and up to $10,000 for felonies. But some states enact additional penalties:
- Arizona – Mandates a fine of at least $1500 for all DUI/DWI convictions.
- Alaska – Imposes a $10,000 fine for first felony DUIs.
- Illinois – Requires first-time offenders to pay $1000 to $2500 in fines.
Add in court costs, breathalyzer fees, and other expenses, and DUI fines easily exceed thousands of dollars, creating long-lasting financial issues.
As this comparison shows, state DUI laws and penalties can vary tremendously around the U.S. When facing DUI/DWI charges, it is essential to consult an attorney familiar with the laws in that specific state, county, and jurisdiction. An experienced local DUI/DWI lawyer knows the exact sentencing possibilities and ways to mitigate the penalties through legal options like deferred sentences, diversion programs and plea deals where permitted. Never face the complex criminal justice system alone after a DUI/DWI arrest.