Each state provides different sentencing schemes and penalties for drunk driving convictions. Most states give some leeway for a first offense and allow it to be charged as a misdemeanor, but they take drunk driving seriously and impose significant penalties for multiple convictions and when aggravating factors are present. However, there are states in which a first-time offense is not even a misdemeanor, but is instead just a civil infraction. Moreover, states differ with regard to how much discretion a judge has over the penalties to be meted out. Some states impose mandatory minimum sentences, while in other states the penalties can vary depending on the case.
Jail or Prison Time
Penalties that you may face if you are convicted of a DUI can include imprisonment, fines, mandatory alcohol assessment and treatment, community service, and probation. In many states, you will not face a long period of imprisonment for a first offense DUI because it is treated as a misdemeanor. While a number of jurisdictions require a minimum amount of jail time (often one or two days) if you are convicted, the most that you will face in the majority of first offense DUI cases is six months in jail. However, when there are aggravating factors, such as an unusually high blood alcohol concentration or an accident in which the DUI causes serious bodily injuries, many states require more jail or prison time. Further, subsequent DUI offenses generally trigger longer sentences. And when a felony DUI has killed or injured somebody, you could face a prison sentence lasting several years.
Drunk Driving Laws and Penalties by State
Some states impose mandatory jail time, even if a DUI is charged as a misdemeanor. Justia provides a comprehensive 50-state survey on DUI laws in each state, including legal alcohol limits and minimum penalties.
Fines and Costs
You may also find that a DUI is expensive. Fines and costs can range from $500-$2,000 or more, depending on the state, even for a first offense. You may be required to install an ignition interlock device (IID) at your own expense. An ignition interlock device requires a driver to blow into a unit that is installed on the car's dashboard, and if the driver's blood alcohol content is over a certain level, the driver will not be able to start the car.
License Suspension or Revocation
You will likely find that there are consequences for your license if you are convicted of DUI. In all states, there is a possibility that your license will be suspended by the Department of Motor Vehicles of that state and/or by court order as part of the sentence. Each state has its own rules about the length of the suspension. A common term of suspension is 90 days for a first offender, though in many states it is possible to apply for a restricted license that may allow you to drive to work, school, or rehab during the suspension period, often with an IID installed. When there is more than one DUI conviction on your record, the term of suspension you will face for subsequent convictions is generally longer. In some jurisdictions, drivers convicted of DUI have their licenses revoked. In many states, if you refuse to take a chemical test, your license may be suspended regardless of whether you are convicted.
Any license penalties imposed for DUI will be separate from those imposed for refusing a chemical test.
Treatment and Education
Often, a sentence for a DUI conviction will include alcohol abuse treatment or education programs. A program of this nature may serve to treat alcohol abuse or may assess you for alcoholism. Sometimes, for a first offense, this is the primary penalty along with probation and license suspension, but it may be combined with other requirements like community service and restitution for victims.
Penalties for Minors Convicted of DUI
If you are a minor who is arrested for DUI, you may face the same potential penalties as an adult. The legal drinking age is 21 in most states. If you are a minor convicted of a DUI, you may be penalized even if you had a blood alcohol content measurement far below .08%; in most states the legal limit for drivers under the age of 21 is .02% or no alcohol whatsoever. In some states penalties for drunk drivers under the age of 21 are even harsher than what adults over 21 face, and your license will likely be suspended if you are convicted.
A DUI conviction may carry insurance consequences as well. Your auto insurance company may take away any good or safe driver discounts that previously applied to your account, and you may be considered a high-risk driver and need to pay higher rates. In some cases, an insurer will cancel the insurance policy, and you might need to find an insurer that specializes in providing high-risk insurance, which is very expensive. Some states may even confiscate a drunk driver's car.
In most states, there are enhanced penalties when certain factors, such as an exceptionally high blood alcohol content, are present. For example, in Alabama, if you are a first offender with a blood alcohol content of .15% or more, your license will be suspended for 90 days, and you will need to install an ignition interlock device for 2 years.