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When Is a DUI a Misdemeanor?

Driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol and drugs is an all too common occurrence. It's also dangerous. You can cause serious injury or death. To help reduce driving while intoxicated (DWI), states have been strengthening their DUI laws.

When is a DUI a misdemeanor? Generally, a first-offense DUI with no aggravating factors when the driver is 21 or older is a misdemeanor. However, a felony DUI is possible under certain circumstances.

Misdemeanor DUI Basics

A misdemeanor is a serious charge. Misdemeanors generally risk jail time, a fine, and probation. Some states, such as Arizona and Michigan, have mandatory jail time for even a first offense.

When a police officer arrests you on a DUI charge, you're taken into custody and will likely spend at least one night in jail. Your driver's license is typically confiscated upon your arrest. Your motor vehicle gets towed at your expense. The criminal charges will appear on your driving and criminal record.

The officer will verify your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) with a highly calibrated breathalyzer or breath test at the police station. If your BAC is at or above your state's legal limit, that state considers you per se intoxicated. They don't need further evidence of your intoxication at this level. All states, except for Utah, have a per se intoxication level of 0.08% BAC. Utah has a legal limit of 0.05% BAC.

You may also need to submit to blood, saliva, or urine tests that will look for illegal substances and establish your BAC. You are also per se intoxicated when any amount of a controlled substance appears in your chemical tests. A few states, such as ColoradoOhio, and Nevada, do allow a small amount of cannabis or tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or its metabolite.

After your arraignment, the jail may release you after posting a bond or bail. Occasionally, when facing a misdemeanor DUI and having no criminal record, a judge may release you on your own recognizance. This means you promise to return for all your court dates and do not have to post a bond.

Aggravating Factors

For an impaired driving offense, a misdemeanor DUI is typically charged for a first-time DUI offense for a person 21 or older without any aggravating circumstances. Aggravating circumstances will change the nature of your charge. While it may still fall within a misdemeanor charge, you will face much harsher penalties.

What qualifies as an aggravating circumstance can vary by state, but often they include:

  • Transporting a minor
  • Excessively high blood alcohol content
  • Prior DUI convictions
  • Driving with suspended or revoked driving privileges
  • Refusing chemical testing
  • Reckless driving or speeding
  • Causing property damage
  • Inflicting serious bodily injury or disability
  • Causing a death

If you are under 21 and caught driving under the influence, your case may go before family or juvenile court. A minor with a BAC of 0.08% or greater is often charged with a misdemeanor DUI that carries the same penalties as an adult DUI.

Misdemeanor DUI Penalties

A misdemeanor DUI conviction still carries serious penalties. Multiple states have mandatory jail time for drugged or drunk driving offenses. You also face a driver's license suspension that will most likely include installing an ignition interlock device.

An ignition interlock device (IID) installs into your vehicle's ignition system. You must submit a breath sample before you can start your car. If the device detects alcohol, it won't allow your vehicle to operate. Often, the device takes a photograph to verify who is submitting the breath sample.

An IID is often a requirement for limited driving privileges. This will allow you to maintain a job, attend school, and participate in substance abuse education programs.

A DUI misdemeanor conviction can carry a variety of penalties. Some common penalties include:

  • Suspended license or revocation
  • Ignition interlock device
  • Jail term
  • Probation
  • Community service hours
  • Substance abuse assessment and treatment
  • Drug and alcohol education classes
  • Fines and court costs
  • SR-22 auto insurance coverage

There are other consequences when you have a DUI conviction, even if it is a misdemeanor offense. You're responsible for all fees and costs associated with your sentence, such as installing and maintaining an IID, paying for your restricted license, and fees for education and treatment. A DUI impacts your auto insurance rates significantly.

A DUI conviction can prevent you from obtaining some professional licenses and even exclude you from jobs. A conviction can interfere with college or university funding. It may bar you from qualifying for some housing.

Misdemeanor vs. Felony DUI

If you have some of the more serious aggravating factors, such as causing serious bodily harm or death, law enforcement will charge you with a felony offense. Most states will charge you with a felony after a second or third DUI.

Driving under the influence is a particular category of offense. Many states will not allow a DUI charge to be plea bargained down to a lesser offense. Some states allow expungement for a first-offense DUI once all sentencing requirements are complete and a certain period passes. Very few states will allow a felony DUI charge expungement from your criminal record.

In addition to facing jail time, a misdemeanor DUI will not require a preliminary hearing or the convening of a grand jury, whereas a felony charge would. A felony charge involves multiple court proceedings leading up to the trial. A felony DUI conviction can get you a minimum of one year or more in state prison and serious fines. The collateral consequences of having a felony on your record can include losing your voting rights, not being able to serve on a jury, and possibly losing your right to own a gun legally.

Get Professional Legal Help With Your Misdemeanor DUI Charge

If you're facing a misdemeanor DUI, you likely have many questions. A conviction carries hefty fines, loss of your license, and even possible jail time. Consider getting legal advice from a DUI defense lawyer. A DUI lawyer can help you get the best outcome. Contact a local DUI defense attorney today to discuss your case.

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