Driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated (DWI) refer to the offenses of operating a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs. These similar acronyms are used interchangeably across different states to indicate the criminal act of driving while drunk.
What Constitutes a DUI/DWI Charge?
The illegal per se limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in all 50 U.S. states is 0.08% for drivers 21 years or older. This means driving with a BAC at or above 0.08% automatically constitutes a DUI/DWI offense. For commercial drivers, the limit is lower at 0.04% BAC. For minors under 21 years old, there is a zero-tolerance policy for any detectable amount of alcohol in most states.
However, you can still be arrested and charged for a DUI/DWI even if your BAC is below the legal limit. Proof of impairment is not limited to a breathalyzer test. If an officer observes erratic driving behavior, conducts field sobriety tests, and you perform poorly, this provides grounds for a DUI/DWI charge.
Field sobriety tests police commonly use include:
- Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN): The officer checks for involuntary jerking of the eyes as they follow a moving object like a penlight. This test also looks for an inability to track smoothly.
- Walk-and-Turn: The driver takes heel-to-toe steps down a straight line, turns, and repeats the steps back. Deviations from the instructions may indicate impairment.
- One-Leg Stand: Standing on one foot while counting out loud tests balance and coordination. Swaying, using arms for balance, or putting the foot down could signify intoxication.
- Finger to Nose: The driver must use their index finger to touch the tip of their nose with eyes closed and head tilted back. Missing the nose or body sway can indicate intoxication.
- Reciting the Alphabet: Failing to accurately recite a portion of the alphabet demonstrates a lapse in mental processing ability.
- Counting Backwards: Similar to reciting the alphabet, counting backwards tests mental acuity and awareness.
Beyond poor performance on these field sobriety tests, officers look for other signs of impairment like slurred speech, bloodshot or glassy eyes, fumbling to locate documents, odor of alcohol, inability to understand instructions, and confusion about surroundings.
Refusing to submit to a chemical BAC test, either breath, blood or urine sample, can also warrant a DUI/DWI charge in many states. This administrative per se suspension happens even without final trial proceedings.
While alcohol remains the most widely abused substance in DUI/DWI cases, marijuana, prescription medications, over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines, cocaine, methamphetamines, opioids, and other recreational or illicit drugs can also lead to driving impairment and DUI/DWI charges.
Penalties for First-Time DUI/DWI Offenders
When charged with a first-time misdemeanor DUI/DWI offense, there are several legal penalties to be aware of:
Fines: Expect to pay fines and court costs totaling between $500 to $1000 or more, sometimes much higher depending on the state and BAC level. Fines escalate with a higher recorded BAC.
Jail Time: Up to 6 months of jail time is possible for a first DUI/DWI offense. However, most states do not impose jail time for a BAC below 0.15% on a first offense, unless there was an accident or injuries involved. Jail time then significantly increases.
License Suspension: A driver’s license is usually suspended for anywhere from 30 to 90 days for a first drunk driving offense. To regain limited driving privileges during the suspension period, most states require installing an ignition interlock device in your vehicle. This analyzes the driver’s breath and prevents the engine from starting if alcohol is detected.
Probation: Most first-time offenders must complete 6 months to 1 year of probation. This involves checking in periodically with a probation officer to show compliance with all conditions.
Alcohol Education Program: Many states mandate completing an alcohol education and treatment program, ranging from 20 hours up to 10 months long. For those under 21, additional community service may be required.
Insurance Impacts: A DUI/DWI conviction substantially increases car insurance rates for 3 to 5 years typically, more than doubling or tripling premiums. Some insurers may cancel coverage entirely, forcing drivers into high-risk pools.
Possible Vehicle Impoundment: In some states, the vehicle operated at the time of arrest may be impounded or have the license plates confiscated for a certain period of time.
Penalties for Second-Time DUI/DWI Offenses
The consequences of a second DUI/DWI offense within 10 years ratchet up significantly:
Jail Time: A minimum of 5 days up to 1 year in jail is typical for a second offense, whether the prior offense was in the same state or a different state. Many states impose a minimum 5 to 10 day jail sentence, even for lower BAC levels.
Fines: Fines increase to $1000 to $5000 plus court costs, fees and alcohol education expenses. Most states double minimum fines for a second offense.
License Suspension: A 1 to 5 year driver’s license suspension is likely for a second offense. An interlock device is usually required for 6 months to 3 years after license reinstatement.
Vehicle Impoundment: The vehicle operated at time of second arrest can be impounded or have license plates confiscated for at least 90 days.
Insurance Impacts: Car insurance will be much more expensive for 5 to 10 years. Many insurers will not provide coverage going forward.
Extended Probation: Probation lasts 18 months to 3 years for a second DUI/DWI offense.
Extended Alcohol Program Attendance: 2 years of alcohol abuse education might be mandated.
House Arrest: Electronic home monitoring ankle bracelets are increasingly used for repeat DUI/DWI offenders.
Permanent Criminal Record: While a first DUI/DWI may eventually be expunged in some states after 5 to 7 years, second offenses usually constitute permanent criminal records.
Penalties for Third-Time and Felony DUI/DWI Offenses
A third DUI/DWI offense within 10 years is prosecuted as a felony in most states. Additional offenses bring further escalations:
Jail Time: A minimum of 120 days up to 1 year in jail, sometimes mandated rehab. Possible prison sentence of 1 to 4+ years.
Fines: $2000 to $10,000 fines are common for third offenses. Subsequent offenses can be fined up to $20,000.
License Suspension: 3+ year suspension up to permanent lifetime revocation, with interlock device required upon reinstatement.
Vehicle Impoundment: Lengthy or permanent vehicle forfeiture.
Insurance: No affordable options, only high-risk specialty insurers.
Felony Criminal Record: Permanent felony record affects employment, housing, voting, firearm ownership.
As you can see, DUI/DWI penalties quickly become severe with repeat offenses. Because laws and punishments vary significantly by state, always consult an experienced local DUI/DWI attorney if facing charges. They can provide a customized case evaluation and defense strategy. Proper legal representation is essential to mitigate penalties.