Driving Under the Influence (DUI) is a crime under state laws that seek to regulate the operation of a vehicle after a driver has consumed alcohol. DUIs typically make it illegal for a driver who has had more than a certain amount of alcohol to get behind the wheel of a car. DUIs are also referred to as driving while intoxicated (DWI) or operating while intoxicated (OWI). A DUI is a criminal offense with serious criminal and civil penalties.
Determining Intoxication Levels
If a driver is pulled over for driving in a manner that suggests possible intoxication, law enforcement officers can employ a variety of methods to determine if the driver is driving under the influence. Police may ask the driver to complete field sobriety tests, such as walking in a straight line or standing on one leg. They may also ask the driver to complete a breathalyzer test, which measures the percentage of alcohol currently in someone’s system. Finally, for the most accurate results, a blood alcohol test may be conducted to measure the level of intoxicants and to determine exactly which intoxicants are in an individual’s system. Refusing to perform a field sobriety test or refusing to perform a breathalyzer or blood alcohol test can lead to additional punishments for the driver.
If a driver is charged with a DUI, there are several options available for proving that the driver was driving under the influence of alcohol. First, and most commonly, a prosecutor may use the driver’s blood alcohol level, as determined by the breathalyzer or blood test. This is often called “per se intoxication” because most states have established a specific level at which a driver is automatically determined to have committed a DUI. While the exact level may vary by state, it is usually at least .08 percent. In order to establish per se intoxication, a prosecutor need only show that an alcohol test was properly administered immediately after the driver was stopped or detained, and that the results of the test were higher than the legal limit.
Even when law enforcement failed to administer, or properly administer, an alcohol test, it may still be possible to prosecute a driver for driving under the influence. In such circumstances, the prosecutor can use the cumulative impact of other evidence to argue that the driver’s actions and circumstances were such that it was unsafe for him or her to drive. For instance, police may have video evidence of the driver engaging in unsafe driving or witness testimony to this effect. The driver may also have failed field sobriety tests or have caused damage to property or other persons in the course of driving. All of this evidence may support a DUI charge.
In some states, this second form of prosecution is known as a second type of crime, called driving while impaired (DWI). It is important to check the laws of your state to determine if a DWI crime exists and, if so, how it is defined. While DWI may simply be a synonym for a DUI, it can also be the separate crime of simply being too impaired to drive. Unlike a DUI, this type of crime may be charged for reasons other than alcohol intoxication, including being overly sleepy behind the wheel.
Punishments for a DUI/DWI/OWI
Consequences for driving while under the influence vary greatly by state and can involve both criminal and civil punishments. In almost all states, a first-time DUI charge is a misdemeanor, punishable by fines and up to six months in jail. While many states will allow a driver to avoid jail for a first-time offense, some do impose a minimum jail sentence of a few days or weeks in order to discourage drunk driving. If a driver’s DUI results in serious injury or the death of another person, a much harsher jail sentence may be imposed, even for the first offense. With subsequent DUI charges, the punishments will typically increase and can result in several years in jail.
In addition to jail time, drivers may have their licenses suspended or revoked for a certain period of time pending the completion of drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs. A license suspension may be as brief as 90 days or as long as several years for a repeat offender.
Drunk Driving Defenses Defending against drunk driving charges often relies on showing inaccuracies in the equipment and in field sobriety tests, or in demonstrating that the evidence is insufficient to support conviction.
Refusing a Field Sobriety Test A police officer may ask a driver suspected of driving while intoxicated to engage in field sobriety tests, but in most states, these tests are voluntary, and you have a right to refuse to participate.
Public Intoxication Public intoxication, or appearing drunk and disorderly in public, is a misdemeanor in most states. While fines or probation may result from a conviction, jail time is unlikely.
License Suspension/Revocation Your driver’s license can be suspended or revoked as a penalty for a DUI arrest, a DUI conviction, or a refusal to submit to blood alcohol testing.
Repeat DUI Offenses Most states impose increasingly harsh penalties on subsequent DUI/DWI convictions, such as imprisonment, large fines, and suspension or revocation of one’s driver’s license. Depending on the state, other additional penalties may be imposed, as well.