Getting arrested for a first offense of driving under the influence is a serious ordeal. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at least one person dies due to an alcohol-related accident every 39 minutes in America. States have enacted strict penalties for the crime to discourage those who have consumed drugs or are under the influence of alcohol from getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.
Intoxicated or drunk driving is a criminal charge with far-reaching consequences. A DUI conviction can suspend your driver's license, send you to jail, increase insurance rates, and more.
Below is a summary of what first-offense DUI penalties may entail. DUI laws are constantly changing. Be sure to check the laws of your state for the most up-to-date information.
First Offense DUI Basics
A driving under the influence charge depends on multiple factors. A law enforcement officer will look at your level of impairment, which includes your alcohol level and how you can function. The officer may ask you to perform field sobriety tests (FST). Field sobriety tests look at how you can walk, check your coordination, and look for signs of drug intoxication.
Your blood alcohol concentration is an essential factor. All states have a per se legal limit. This limit is set at 0.08% in all states except Utah, which recognizes a legal limit of 0.05%. For commercial drivers, the legal BAC limit is 0.04%.
Under per se DUI laws, if your alcohol level is at or above the legal limit, law enforcement can charge you with a DUI without other evidence of your impairment. If you are below the legal limit, an officer may still arrest you if they document signs of impairment. These can include you slurring your words or being unable to perform field sobriety tests.
A more serious offense results if your blood alcohol concentration is excessive, usually around 0.15% or more, or if you are transporting minors. You face a felony charge if you cause an accident resulting in property damage, injury, or death.
Implied Consent and Refusal
All states now have implied consent laws. When a police officer suspects you are driving while intoxicated (DWI), they ask you to submit to chemical tests. These may include a Breathalyzer or breath test, a blood test, or a urine analysis. These tests determine the amount of alcohol or drugs in your system. Under implied consent, law enforcement expects you to cooperate with these tests as part of the privilege of having your driver's license.
You can refuse chemical tests, but state laws give immediate consequences for your refusal. Often, these include the immediate revocation of your driving privileges, a fine, or specific states allow for your arrest. Your driver's license suspension is in addition to any further suspension you may receive after conviction.
Police officers can still charge you with a DUI or DWI if you don't cooperate with chemical tests. The state may use your refusal to submit to testing as evidence against you in court.
Jail Time After a First Offense DUI
Every state has its laws and penalties. Generally, a first DUI is a misdemeanor charge. You can face up to a year in jail. Often, if you don't have a high blood alcohol content (BAC) or were not under the influence of drugs, you may be able to serve your jail sentence on an alternative work or community service program. This is especially true if you have a clean record.
Many states require even first-time DUI offenders to serve some jail time. Several states, such as Arizona and Tennessee, have mandatory jail time for a first DUI offense. This jail time is not eligible for a waiver by the judge.
Along with criminal charges, you will have administrative penalties. The main penalty is your driver's license suspension. Your state's department of motor vehicles (DMV) will handle this aspect.
Often, the police officer will confiscate your driver's license at the time of your arrest. They may give you a temporary paper license, with instructions to contact your local DMV. You may need to request a hearing.
In most situations, you can apply for a restricted license, allowing you to go to and from work, school, and any court-mandated alcohol treatment programs. Remember that your license suspension can be even longer if you are later convicted of a DUI-related charge. For instance, a first-offense DUI in California carries a six-month license suspension.
Ignition Interlock Devices
Most states now have laws requiring the installation of an ignition interlock device (IID) on any vehicle you use. Typically, this is a requirement of having a restricted license. You will need to serve some of your license revocation time before you can apply.
An ignition interlock device is a small breath-testing device that prevents your vehicle from starting unless you submit a breath sample. If the device detects a measurable amount of alcohol in your sample, your vehicle won't turn on. You will have to cover the installation and maintenance costs throughout your suspension.
DUI Fines and Fees
DUIs are not cheap. Besides paying court-assessed fines, you can also expect to pay:
- Court costs and fees
- Driver's license reinstatement
- Vehicle impoundment costs
- Ignition interlock device installation, maintenance, and rental fees
- Substance abuse education and treatment
- Increased auto insurance rates
- Attorney's fees
- Restitution for injuries and property damage
These include lost time off work or school, alternative transportation, and other costs you may incur.
Car Insurance Rates
You can expect your car insurance rates to go up after a first-offense DUI. To drive with a restricted license, you may have to get SR-22 insurance, which is expensive. In some situations, an insurance carrier can cancel your policy, as you are too high a risk. Moreover, a person with subsequent offenses of DUI creates the most significant risk for an insurance company. These individuals will see the most considerable insurance premium increase.
DUI School and Substance Abuse Treatment Program
Many states will require you to undergo mandatory drug and alcohol education classes to get your driver's license back. For instance, California's First Offender Program consists of a three- to nine-month course designed to encourage participants to address alcohol or drug problems and create a plan to treat the addiction.
Many states allow a term of probation instead of jail time, but a requirement for probation is usually to undergo a substance abuse evaluation and treatment.
Underage DUI and Zero Tolerance Laws
Most states now have zero-tolerance laws, which allow for strict consequences if an underage driver has any measurable amount of alcohol or drugs in their system. As those under 21 are not legally allowed to consume alcohol, a BAC of up to 0.02% will find you arrested. A higher BAC results in more serious charges.
Generally, an underage person will not go to jail but will face heavy fines, probation, and substance abuse classes. A few states require your parents to also attend substance abuse courses.
You will have your driver's license suspended, and in some places, if your BAC is high, you could lose your driving privileges until you reach 21.
A DUI conviction can affect you for many years. Only a few states allow for a DUI conviction to be expunged. Also, many states do not allow a DUI charge to be plea bargained down to a lesser crime.
Many employers require criminal background checks for new employees. A DUI conviction may impede your hiring. You may be at risk of losing your job as a result of conviction as well. This is especially true if you hold a commercial driver's license (CDL). A DUI conviction can affect the status of your CDL.
Housing may become difficult to get, especially when working with a housing assistance program. Landlords can also require background checks and may deny your application if they see a DUI conviction.
Talk to a Lawyer About Your First Offense DUI Charge
A DUI conviction can be a costly experience for the average person. An impaired driving conviction can negatively impact your life, from the fines to court costs, possible jail time, and a suspended license. It pays to be aware of your legal options before pleading guilty. Before going to court, consider speaking with an experienced DUI attorney who can answer your important questions.