Drunk Driving (DUI/DWI)

Overview

What constitutes driving under the influence?

Driving under the influence (DUI) means operating a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol or drugs that have impaired a person's mental or motor skills. In most states, a person will be considered "impaired" if they exhibit objective signs of intoxication, or if they have a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher. Some states refer to drunk driving as driving while intoxicated (DWI).

When may a police officer stop a driver for being under the influence?

Police may stop a driver for any violation of the vehicle code. They often stop intoxicated drivers for straddling lane markers, weaving between lanes, driving at excessive or very slow speeds, braking erratically and coming in close contact with objects or other vehicles. An officer may also have reason to suspect a driver is intoxicated if they observe a driver at the scene of an accident, or at a sobriety checkpoint.

How do police determine whether a driver is intoxicated?

Police use three methods to determine whether a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. First, police may observe the driver for objective signs of intoxication. Objective signs of intoxication include a distinct odor of alcohol coming from the driver, red, watery eyes, and slurred speech. Second, police will assess a driver's ability to perform field sobriety tests. Field sobriety tests are scientifically designed to test a driver's balance and motor skills. Police may ask a driver to perform tasks such as walking heel-to-toe in a straight line, standing on one leg, or reciting the alphabet backwards. If a driver fails one or more of these tasks, the officer may request that the driver take a chemical test to measure the driver's blood alcohol content (BAC). A driver's BAC is tested by breath, blood, or urine and is measured by the percentage of alcohol in the blood by weight.

Are tests to determine whether a driver is intoxicated mandatory?

A driver is not required to submit to chemical testing. However, refusing the test may have serious consequences. In some states, refusal to submit to testing is an offense in and of itself. Failure to approve chemical testing may also result in more severe penalties, such as a longer period of license suspension or an increased jail sentence. Additionally, the jury may be able to consider evidence of the refusal as evidence of guilt.

What charges does an individual face for drunk driving?

Individuals who are arrested for drunk driving typically face two separate charges. First, drivers are charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). Evidence to support this charge is based on the officer's initial observations of the individual. An officer may consider an individual's objective signs of intoxication, as well as their performance on field sobriety tests. Drivers may also face a separate charge based solely on their blood alcohol content at the time of driving. Most states will file charges against drivers with a BAC of .08 or higher. Additionally, many states impose a "zero tolerance" standard for drivers under the age of 21. Thus, if a driver under the legal drinking age is found with any alcohol in their system, they will be charged with drunk driving.

What happens after a driver is arrested?

Generally, a driver will be kept in a holding cell until they are sober. At that time, the driver will be released on bail or on the driver's own recognizance (O.R.). If the driver cannot make bail, or is not granted O.R. release, the driver will remain in jail. After being charged, the driver will be given a date to appear in court for arraignment. The driver may wish to contact an attorney and obtain legal representation before their first court appearance.

What are the penalties associated with drunk driving?

Punishments for drunk driving vary among jurisdictions. Typically, penalties include fines, alcohol and drug classes, community service, and license suspension. Many states impose higher penalties in cases where a driver's BAC is over .15. Drivers with a high BAC may be required to serve a jail sentence, pay larger fines, and have devices installed in their vehicles that measure the driver's BAC before the vehicle may be turned on. Drunk driving may be treated as a felony if the driver's intoxication caused an accident that resulted in death or serious bodily injury, or if the driver has been convicted previously of two or more drunk driving offenses.