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What Is DUI / DWI Law?

Driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or other intoxicants is a crime in all 50 states. Penalties include losing your license, traffic school, and even jail time. DUI arrests are no joke, and you should take them seriously, even if “nothing happened."

State DUI laws aim to reduce the number of accidents caused by impaired drivers. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 13,000 people died in alcohol-related traffic accidents in 2021. Penalties are harsh; curbing the results of drunk driving requires heavy deterrence.

The best way to avoid DUI charges is not to drive drunk. If you've been unable to follow this advice and gotten a DUI arrest, read on to learn the next-best way to reduce the impact of a DUI conviction.

Types of DUI Offenses

Driving under the influence goes by many names, depending on the state. States may call it driving while intoxicated (DWI), operating while intoxicated (OWI), and even boating while intoxicated (BWI). They are all the same offense—operating a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol, illegal narcotics, or legally prescribed medications.

  • Driving while intoxicated usually means under the influence of alcohol. The national standard for “drunk driving" is a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or higher.
  • Driving while impaired refers to other substances. There is no blood-level standard for impairment with marijuana or other drugs.
  • Operating while intoxicated/impaired is a catchall term for operating any motor vehicle under the influence of any substance. The term avoids separate citations for cars, trucks, motorcycles, lawnmowers, etc.

Penalties for DUI

Each state has its own set of penalties for DUI violations. First-time offenders typically face misdemeanor charges (which may be charged under the state's motor vehicle laws). But repeat offenders, people with high BAC, or people with children in the vehicle, may face felony DWI charges. If the driver caused an accident with injuries or a fatality, they could also face felony charges.

A DUI lawyer can tell you exactly what outcome you might face after your first offense. Some possible penalties include:

  • License suspension: Courts will suspend your license from 180 days for a first offender to two years or more for a repeat offender.
  • DUI School: Alcohol education is mandatory in some states. Courts may refer repeat offenders for inpatient alcohol or drug treatment.
  • Ignition interlock device (IID): These devices attach to the driver's car and prevent it from starting unless the driver's BAC is below the legal limit.
  • Fines: Fines start small and get much larger for repeat and habitual offenders.
  • Jail time: First offenders may not receive jail sentences unless their DUI results in a serious injury or death. Repeat offenders will see their sentences turned into misdemeanors and felonies, which carry jail and even prison time.
  • DMV penalties: Some states hold administrative hearings through the DMV rather than (or in addition) to criminal trials. First-time offenders can lose their driver's licenses but not face additional criminal charges.

The first time in court determines how the remainder of your legal future will proceed. A good DUI defense attorney can help avoid many future court dates and many legal headaches.

How a DUI Lawyer Will Help You

A DUI charge is a criminal case, even if it doesn't seem like one. DUI laws are usually enforced under state penal codes, and cases are heard in a criminal court division. More importantly, you could have a criminal record if you are found guilty.

Your DUI/DWI attorney will start by reviewing the police report from your arrest. There are two elements to a DUI stop: the breath test and the field sobriety test. In all states, drivers consent to these tests as a condition of receiving a driver's license. You can refuse a roadside breathalyzer test in some states. But that only means you get a ride to the station for a blood test or a further breathalyzer test with a machine located at the station.

An officer certified in administering field sobriety tests gives and assesses your performance. If the field sobriety test was not given properly, your attorney can use that on your behalf.

Plea Bargains

A good lawyer will recommend a plea deal if you were drinking, and the blood or breath test makes it impossible to deny. For a first offender, this can be a way to save your driving privileges and your driving record. Your attorney may suggest:

  • Voluntary alcohol or drug treatment (before the judge sentences you)
  • Pleading to a lesser offense, such as reckless driving
  • An ignition interlock device and limited driving privileges (such as work only) for a set period
  • Diversion programs, for which first-time offenders may qualify. But your attorney needs to suggest it to the prosecutor. Diversion is a suspended sentence, similar to probation. If you complete all the terms of the diversion, the court drops the charges

If you're not happy with the idea of a guilty plea, you can roll the dice with a trial. If you have a valid defense to your DUI charge, let your attorney know right away. Some reasons might include physical conditions that prevent you from completing the field sobriety test (such as a sprained ankle) or actions by law enforcement (such as an improper traffic stop).

Note: The Supreme Court declared DUI checkpoints constitutional in 1990, so they do not violate your rights.

If You Need a Public Defender

If you can't afford a private attorney, you can ask for a public defender for your DUI if you need one. Most DUI cases bond out or are released on their own recognizance after they sober up. But they still need to appear in court for their arraignment. The judge will advise you of your rights at your arraignment and ask if you want an attorney.

The public defender's office handles DUI/DWI cases for indigent individuals. They have a high caseload, so if you have a drunk driving charge and need legal services, consider that carefully before asking the public defender's office. They can give you legal advice on how to proceed. They also can give you referrals to low-cost or no-cost legal aid in your area.

Charged With DUI? Get Help From an Attorney

If you are charged with driving under the influence, contact a knowledgeable DUI attorney in your area. Legal representation from a DWI lawyer who knows the local rules is the best way to stay out of court and out of jail.

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