Driving while drug or alcohol-impaired is a crime in every state. It may be called something different, like operating while under the influence (OWI) or driving while impaired (DWI) but driving under the influence (DUI) is an all too common criminal charge.
Alcohol-related auto accidents kill one person every 39 minutes in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Impaired drivers are responsible for 30% of accident-related fatalities each year. In response, state laws around DUI have become stricter and carry heavier penalties.
What can you expect if you are facing a DUI charge? DUI cases, like all criminal cases, follow a specific set of stages. Your case begins at your arrest and ends with a DUI plea, conviction, or acquittal. Occasionally, you may file an appeal to challenge your outcome.
Though similar to other criminal cases, there are a few crucial differences. A DUI charge has both criminal and administrative components. The criminal justice system handles your criminal charges. The department of motor vehicles (DMV) or whichever office oversees your state's driver's licenses deals with the administrative aspect.
Law enforcement officers are specially trained to monitor roadways for impaired drivers. Certain signs, like weaving, erratic driving, and disobeying traffic signs, can give a police officer probable cause to initiate a traffic stop and investigate. In some states, law enforcement can establish sobriety checkpoints, where law enforcement selects drivers at random to check for impaired driving.
The police officer will ask you questions and observe you for signs of impairment, like slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, or a smell of alcohol. These signs will prompt an officer to ask you to participate in a preliminary alcohol screening (PAS). This is usually done with a Breathalyzer or breath test device. This PAS measures your blood alcohol content (BAC), or the amount of alcohol in your system.
An officer may also ask you to perform standardized field sobriety tests. Field sobriety tests are a series of tasks and observations that check for drug and alcohol impairment.
These test results give an officer probable cause to arrest you on a drugged or drunk driving offense.
Per Se DUI and Implied Consent Laws
The per se legal limit for most states is 0.08%, or 0.05% in Utah. If your test results are at or above this level, under the law, you are too intoxicated to be driving. If your BAC measures at or more than your state's per se blood alcohol level, law enforcement can ask you to participate in further chemical testing, such as a blood test or saliva or urine analysis.
Under implied consent laws, you have already consented to chemical testing by having a driver's license and driving on state roadways. You may refuse chemical tests, but there are consequences separate from a DUI charge. You may lose your driving privileges, face fines, or receive a criminal charge. Refusing chemical tests will not prevent your arrest, and an officer can get a warrant for these tests. In most jurisdictions, law enforcement can use evidence of your refusal against you in court.
A first-time charge for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, without aggravating factors, is usually a misdemeanor. Aggravating factors will make your charge more serious and run the risk of it becoming a felony. Aggravating factors may include:
- A BAC over 0.15%
- Prior DUI convictions
- Transporting a minor
- Excessive speed or reckless driving
- Accident causing serious bodily injury
- Accident causing death
Arrest Processing and Arraignment
Once arrested, the arresting officer will confiscate your driver's license. Your vehicle gets towed and impounded at your expense. The officer takes you to your local police department for processing. You may go to a hospital for chemical tests. Chemical tests will confirm your blood alcohol concentration and will look for drug intoxication.
You will likely spend the night in jail before a judge can arraign you and assign you a bail amount. Most first-time DUI offenses are misdemeanors unless you caused an accident with injuries or had an excessively high BAC level.
At your arraignment, you can request a court-appointed attorney, unless you can afford a private attorney. The court reads the charge against you, and you enter a plea, such as not guilty.
DUI Court Procedure
After your arraignment, if you have pleaded not guilty, you will have several more court appearances and possibly a trial. How your case proceeds depends on multiple factors. Your case can include various court hearings, a trial, and a sentencing phase. Court hearings after your arraignment may consist of:
- Preliminary hearing
- Pre-trial conferences
- Pre-trial motions
Your attorney may work out a plea bargain that will avoid a trial. However, many states prohibit pleading out DUI charges to something lesser, like a reckless driving charge.
Some locations have separate DUI and drug courts. These can make the process more efficient and offer you more options. There may also be special programs available for DUI offenders. Keep in mind you also have administrative requirements with your driving privileges.
The arresting officer usually confiscates your driver's license at the time of your arrest. The office will give you a temporary paper license. You will have a certain number of days to contact your state DMV or department that handles driver's licenses.
You may request an administrative hearing to challenge your license revocation. At this hearing, the arresting officer will present testimony and evidence about your DUI arrest. They will state if you complied with or refused chemical testing. Refusing chemical testing often results in an automatic driver's license suspension for longer than if you had complied.
You will present your testimony about the DUI stop and why you should keep your driving privileges. The hearing officer or administrative judge will decide if the officer has enough evidence to charge you. You may keep your driver's license if they rule the officer did not. Your criminal charge still stands, and you must appear in court to deal with your drunk driving case.
The DMV will likely require you to complete specific requirements before reinstating your license. These may include completing a substance abuse assessment or attending substance abuse education. You'll have to pay reinstatement fees, and some states require you to retake your licensing exam.
Ignition Interlock Device and Restricted Licenses
Your driver's license suspension time will vary by the state where you received your DUI charge, the circumstances around your charge, and if you are a repeat offender. Often, after serving a period of suspension, you may apply for a restricted license to drive to school, work, or necessary appointments. As part of this license, you may need to install an ignition interlock device (IID) at your own expense.
An IID is a breath alcohol test installed in your vehicle's ignition system. You need to submit a breath test before you can start the car. If it detects alcohol in your sample, the vehicle will not turn on. The IID usually has a camera that snaps a photograph at the time you test to ensure the right person supplies the sample. You will need to submit occasional breath tests during your drive to keep the vehicle operating.
Violations of the IID, tampering with the device, or driving a vehicle without an IID are violations that will extend your IID requirement or earn you other sanctions.
After a DUI conviction, you face sentencing. Many states have strict penalties, such as losing your driver's license for a certain period, having your car impounded, and jail time. Your sentences will be more severe if you have aggravating factors or are a repeat offender. Some states have mandatory jail time for first-time offenders. Criminal penalties you may face can include:
- Significant fines and fees
- Driver's license suspension
- Jail time
- Substance abuse treatment
- Substance abuse monitoring or SCRAM Bracelet
- Community service
In addition to fines assessed by the court, you are responsible for all costs associated with your penalties, such as substance abuse education fees and ignition interlock device installation and maintenance.
After a DUI
Driving under the influence has many consequences. Some are long-lasting. DUI convictions can impact your life even after you have completed your sentence.
Many employers won't hire applicants with DUI convictions, especially for commercial driving. Also, a DUI can make car insurance prohibitively expensive. Most states require an SR-22 form from your insurer after a DUI to prove you have auto liability insurance.
A DUI conviction can prevent you from getting specific professional licenses. It can also impact your ability to go to college or obtain certain types of funding. You may have difficulty finding housing if the lessor runs criminal background checks.
A DUI conviction can impact your immigration status. You may face deportation.
Somewhere down the line, expunging your DUI might be possible. Expungement laws vary by state, but some states allow you to apply five to 10 years after your conviction, as long as you don't have further convictions. However, many states don't allow expungement of a DUI conviction.
You Don't Have To Solve This on Your Own. Get a Lawyer's Help
While you can represent yourself in court, having a lawyer on your side is a good idea. Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to protect your rights best. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.