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What Legal Issues Can I Face for Drunk Driving?

Drunk driving is a very serious offense that can lead to some major consequences. Depending on the laws of your state, a person is generally considered to be legally intoxicated if they have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or 0.10%.

If a person chooses to operate a motor vehicle after drinking alcohol or taking drugs that impair their senses, then it can result in having to face many legal ramifications, such as getting ticketed, criminally fined, arrested, and charged for driving while intoxicated (DWI), or the more commonly known term, driving under the influence (DUI).

While an individual who has been charged with drunk driving usually only receives a misdemeanor for their first offense, they can still be charged with a felony if they have injured another person or caused damage to property. A person may also face felony charges if it was not their first drunk driving offense.

Additionally, though most states will charge a drunk driver with a DUI, every state has their own set of criteria for what is deemed a drunk driving offense, as well as different varieties of the potential charges that may apply.

Finally, it is important to note that drunk driving is more than just a mere traffic citation; it is considered a criminal offense. As such, if you are convicted of a drunk driving offense, it will appear on your criminal record.

What Tests are Used to Determine Intoxication?

If a police officer suspects that a person is driving drunk, then they will have probable cause to pull that person over. This can occur under many circumstances, including when they see that a person is speeding or swerving all over the road, and if they observe alcohol or drug paraphernalia (e.g., certain types of pipes) in the vehicle.

After a person gets pulled over, a police officer will likely request that they step out of the vehicle and ask them to take one of the following tests to determine whether they are sober:

  • Breathalyzer: This is a handheld device that measures the concentration of alcohol in a person's system by having them blow into it. It can be administered at either the scene where the car was pulled over or at a police station.
  • Blood or Urine Testing: This test is a bit more complicated as it requires a medical professional to do the testing and produce lab results. Additionally, the police will need to obtain a warrant first. Thus, this test is not normally administered at the scene.
  • Field Sobriety Tests: These are commonly given at the scene and include a variety of different activities that are designed to test a person's balance and agility, such as touching a finger to your nose, reciting the alphabet, or standing on one foot while counting.

If the person fails any of these tests, the officer will have grounds to ticket and arrest them for drunk driving. Also, if a person refuses to perform any of the tests that can be administered at the scene, then a police officer can still arrest them if they suspect that the individual has been driving drunk.

Lastly, things like the smell of alcohol on a person's breath or from open containers in the car (even if they are empty), can be used as evidence that a police officer may rely on to arrest them for drunk driving.

What Happens After a Drunk Driving Arrest?

After a person gets arrested for drunk driving, they will be assigned a court date. If they are charged with a DWI or DUI, then they will have to decide whether they are going to fight the arrest, take a plea deal, or proceed to trial.

Also, there might be some defenses available to use against the charges. These may include the following:

  • The person being arrested was not the driver of the vehicle;
  • There was no probable cause to pull them over; 
  • The test itself or the results were unreliable or inaccurate; or
  • There was insufficient evidence to make an arrest.

As previously mentioned, the requirements for a DUI offense varies widely from state to state. Some states will permit the police to arrest an individual who is drunk, even when their car is in park.

For example, in certain states if the police find a car parked on the side of the road with a drunk person behind the wheel and their keys are in the ignition, but the car is not turned on, they may still be able to charge them with a DUI.

Depending on the laws of the state, there are also many factors that will determine whether the defendant can be convicted of a DUI or if the charges will be dismissed. Some of these involve:

  • The location of the person who is intoxicated (e.g., are they in the driver's seat or passenger's seat?);
  • Whether the person is asleep or awake;
  • The location of the car keys (e.g., in the ignition, on the floor, in the person's pocket, etc.); and 
  • Where the car is parked (e.g., in a parking lot, driveway, or side of the road).

If you are facing charges for a DWI or DUI, it may be in your best interest to consult a criminal defense attorney. They can help you decide the best path to take, whether any defenses are available, and what factors are applicable under the laws of your particular state.

What Are Some Differences with DUI vs. DWI?

A “DUI”, officially known as “driving under the influence”, is the most popular phrase that people use in regard to a drunk driving offense. However, it is not uncommon in many jurisdictions to hear the term, “driving while intoxicated” or “DWI”, to refer to the same types of offenses instead.

Many states often apply both acronyms (i.e., DUI and DWI) as if they can be used interchangeably. However, not every jurisdiction may recognize both and some jurisdictions may even assign different meanings depending on which acronym is used.

For example, the state of Texas distinguishes a DUI from a DWI when charging someone with a drunk driving violation. In Texas, a DWI is typically reserved for those who are older than 21 years of age, whereas a DUI is a drunk driving offense used to charge those who are minors or under the age of 17 years old. It should be noted that there are certain situations wherein persons between the ages of 17 and 20 years old can be charged with either one in Texas.

Generally speaking, a DUI tends to mean that the driver was operating their vehicle under the influence of substances other than or in addition to alcohol, such as illegal drugs and/or prescription medications. In contrast, the acronym DWI will usually only apply to drunk driving charges that involve alcohol. Thus, the term “intoxicated” in its full definition.

Given the information just discussed, this may sound as if jurisdictions that recognize them as separate charges would consider a DUI to be a worse offense than a DWI, but this does not always hold true. For instance, a DWI can become a more serious offense due to the level of intoxication of a driver. This is known as a driver's blood alcohol concentration, or “BAC”, which is essentially the amount of alcohol in the driver's bloodstream.

In such cases, a driver who has a high BAC level and is charged with a DWI violation may receive a harsher sentence than someone who is pulled over and charged with a DUI due to the amount of alcohol that is found in their system.

The person who is charged with a DUI may only have a trace level of prescribed medication that impairs their ability to drive a car, while the person being charged with a DWI could have consumed multiple drinks in a short span of time and blown more than the standard legal limit of a BAC level of 0.08%. Thus, the person with the DUI could receive a lower punishment simply based on the fact that they did not drink alcohol, but rather took a pill that did not register.

As is evident from the above discussion, it is extremely important that you speak to a local lawyer about the differences between the DUI and DWI laws in your state if you are charged with either drunk driving offense. Not only do these laws vary widely by state, but they also may involve different kinds of penalties and/or legal defenses depending on the facts of your case.

What Are the Penalties for DUI/DWI?

The penalties that one can receive after being convicted of charges involving DUI or DWI violations can vary based on the facts of a particular case, the laws of an individual state, and the number of times that the person has been charged or convicted of such crimes in the past. In general, however, the penalties assigned for DUI or DWI offenses in most states include the following forms of punishment:

  • For a DUI or DWI violation that is charged as a misdemeanor offense:
    • A sentence in county jail for up to one full year;
    • Some amount of criminal fines (usually ranging from somewhere in between $500 and $1,000, with the
    • maximum set at no greater than $1,000);
    • Community service; and/or
    • Increased auto or car insurance rates.
  • For a DUI or DWI violation that is charged as a felony offense:
    • A sentence in state prison for one year or longer;
    • Some amount of criminal fines (usually for at least a minimum of $1,000);
    • Community service hours;
    • Probation or possibility of parole;
    • Temporary or permanent license suspension or revocation;
    • Mandatory counseling and/or treatment programs;
    • Traffic or defensive driving classes;
    • Vehicle registration suspension, confiscation, or impoundment;
    • Ignition interlock device installations;
    • Increased auto or car insurance rates; and/or
    • Various other types of penalties that are left up to a court's discretion.

In other words, the more times that a drunk driver is convicted of a DUI or DWI offense, the higher the chances they have of receiving more serious forms of punishment like longer prison sentences and/or increased monetary fines. In addition, a person may not even need to be a repeat offender in order to receive harsher penalties.

For example, a driver will automatically be charged with a felony DUI offense if they cause death or serious injury to another person in a drunk driving incident. A drunk driver can also face felony charges in the event they were speeding and/or exceeded the high BAC level percentage set by the laws in their state. Additionally, if a driver was engaged in another crime while drunk, such as drag racing or grand theft auto, this may also constitute a felony offense.

On the other hand, a driver who is charged with a DUI or DWI offense may be able to raise some legal defenses against the charges. Such defenses may include the following:

  • The person arrested is the wrong suspect or was not driving the vehicle;
  • Law enforcement did not have probable cause to pull them over;
  • The results of an intoxication test were erroneous or the intoxication test itself was improperly administered;
  • The prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence or was not able to prove its case;
  • The driver was coerced or under duress to drive the vehicle while intoxicated;
  • The chain of custody was broken in administering an intoxication test;
  • Law enforcement encouraged the driver to operate their vehicle drunk in a manner that amounted to entrapment; and/or
  • The defendant was involuntarily intoxicated.

It is important to remember that the legal defenses and penalties for DUI or DWI charges can vary from state to state. Thus, it is extremely important that an individual hire a local DUI/DWI lawyer to discuss the facts of their case as well as to learn more about whether there are any defenses they can raise during their case and/or the different penalties they can receive if they are convicted of such charges.

DUI/DWI Penalties for Repeat Offenders

In general, drunk driving charges in most states often result in a conviction for a misdemeanor offense, meaning that the penalties for a DUI or DWI will typically consist of some amount of monetary fines, a county jail sentence, or both. When a person is charged and convicted of a DUI or DWI as a repeat offender, however, the penalties they can receive are usually more severe. This is because a repeat offense can elevate a second drunk driving charge to a felony offense.

Felony drunk driving penalties for repeat offenders can lead to a state prison sentence of at least one full year or longer, increased monetary fines, and/or court-ordered treatment or counseling sessions. In addition, if certain aggravating factors are present in a case, many state laws provide for enhanced punishments.

For example, if you are convicted of a second drunk driving violation in the state of California, then the court may issue an order to temporarily suspend or permanently revoke your driver's license. This can interfere with your freedom to participate in daily activities, such as commuting to work, driving to a friend's house, or bringing your kids to school.

Finally, it is important to note that the penalties and regulations for repeat offenders who commit DUI or DWI offenses will vary in accordance with the laws of a particular state. Thus, if you are facing charges for a second DUI or DWI violation, then it may be in your best interest to contact a local DUI/DWI lawyer for further help with your case. A lawyer will be able to explain how the laws in your state apply to your case and the various associated penalties.

Additional Criminal Law Penalties for Repeat Offenders

The penalties that a repeat offender can receive after being convicted of a DUI or DWI violation will primarily depend on the driving laws in their jurisdiction, the facts of their particular case, and the number of times they have been convicted on the same or of similar charges. The general rule of thumb is that the more times that a driver is convicted for a DUI or DWI offense, the higher the chances are of them receiving harsher penalties.

As previously mentioned, the typical criminal law penalties for repeat offenders in drunk driving cases often include monetary fines, a jail or prison sentence, mandatory counseling sessions, and/or temporary suspension or permanent revocation of one's license.

In addition, some other criminal law penalties for repeat offenders who are convicted of drunk driving charges may also include the following types of penalties:

  • Having to complete a set number of hours of community service;
  • Having one's motor vehicle either temporarily or permanently impounded or confiscated (note that this punishment is usually reserved for those who have been convicted on such charges at least three times or more);
  • Having to install a device like an ignition interlock on their motor vehicle;
  • Having to obtain a certificate that proves the individual completed an alcohol and/or drug rehabilitation program or educational course;
  • Having a permanent criminal record for the remainder of one's life;
  • Having to attend traffic school or defensive driving courses; and/or
  • Various other penalties required by state law or issued at a judge's discretion.

The list below contains some further examples of how a specific state may handle punishing a driver who has multiple drunk driving violations on their criminal record. While reviewing them, consider the differences and similarities in penalties between the following states:

  • California: The penalties for a DUI/DWI in California typically include a six-month prison term, fines ranging between $390 and $1,000, and/or a suspended license for up to a maximum of six months. A second DUI/DWI offense can lead to a fine ranging between the same amounts as a first-time offense, having a license suspended for up to three years, and/or jail time for up to one year.
    • A repeat offender who is convicted of a DUI/DWI violation for a third time in California can earn up to a year in jail or longer, fines ranging between $390 and $1,000, and/or a license suspension for up to three years. These penalties will increase in their severity the more times a person is convicted. A judge may also require an individual to install an ignition interlock on their motor vehicle.
  • Florida: Those convicted of DUI/DWI charges in the state of Florida will typically receive a fine ranging between $500 and $1,000, a license suspension of up to one full year, and/or a maximum jail sentence of up to six months or possibly probation and DUI courses instead.
    • A second violation will lead to increased fines ranging between $1,000 and $2,000, an increase in jail sentence of up to nine months, and/or require installation of an ignition interlock on one's motor vehicle, depending on the circumstances.
      • A third time violation will result in a fine of up to $5,000 as well as a prison sentence of up to five years total, along with possible installation of an ignition interlock device.
  • Illinois: Illinois has a variety of different elements that a court may factor in when issuing a sentence for a drunk driving violation. Residents would be wise to consult a local attorney first, but generally those in Illinois who are convicted of a DUI violation their first time may receive a fine of up to $2,500, a jail sentence of up to one year, and/or have their license suspended for up to three months.
    • A second time offense will lead to a mandatory minimum of five days' imprisonment to up to one full year or 240 community service hours, fines of up to $2,500, vehicle impoundment, and an ignition interlock device being installed on their vehicle.
      • A third time conviction can result in fines of up to $25,000, revocation of a license for a minimum of ten years, vehicle suspension, and/or a prison sentence lasting between three to seven years.
  • New York: The state of New York divides its penalties in accordance with the type of drunk driving offense. Specifically, New York separates repeat offenders by three main categories: DUIs, DWIs, and DWAIs (i.e., driving while ability impaired with either drugs, alcohol, or both).
    • A conviction for a DUI/DWI for a first-time offender in New York includes a mandatory fine ranging from $500 to $1,000, a potential jail sentence of up to one year, and/or a temporary license suspension of at least six months. Receiving a first-time offense for a DWAI will also result in the same penalties as the others, unless aggravating factors were present.
      • In which case, the driver can receive up to one year in jail, have their license revoked for at least one full year, and will have to pay a fine somewhere in between $1,000 and $2,500.
    • A second DWAI will include jail time for up to thirty days, license revocation of at least six months, and/or a fine ranging between $500 and $750. In contrast, a second time offense for a DUI/DWI may lead to a sentence of up to four years' imprisonment, thirty days of community service, fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, and/or a license suspension of at least one full year.
    • A third time offense for a DWAI could result in having one's license permanently revoked. As for a third-time offense for a DUI/DWI violation, this can end in monetary fines ranging from $2,000 to $10,000, up to seven years' imprisonment, and/or revocation of one's license for one year or longer.
  • Texas: In Texas, drunk driving offenses are referred to as DWIs. A first-time DWI violation in Texas can result in a maximum jail sentence of up to 180 days, a fine of up to $2,000, and suspension of one's driver license for somewhere in between 90 days to up to one full year.
    • A second DWI violation can result in jail time for up to one full year, a fine of up to $4,000, and a suspension of one's driver license for somewhere in between 180 days and two years. A third DWI in the state of Texas can lead to two to ten years' imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, and a license suspension for up to two years.
      • Additionally, in certain situations, a Texas court may also order a driver to install an ignition interlock device on their motor vehicle. 

How can a Lawyer Assist me with DUI or DWI Charges?

You may want to consider consulting with a local DUI/DWI lawyer if you are facing charges for a DUI or DWI violation. This is especially true in cases where individuals are at risk of being convicted of a DUI or DWI offense for a second or third time, which would assign them the status of a repeat offender. In general, repeat offenders typically receive harsher sentences. Regardless of whether this is your first or third DUI/DWI offense, a lawyer who has experience in handling cases that involve DUI or DWI violations will be able to inform you of your rights and protections under the driving laws in your state. Your lawyer will also be able to recommend the best plan of action based on the specific facts of your case and can discuss the potential penalties you can receive if you are convicted of the charges.

In addition, your lawyer can perform legal research to determine whether there are any legal defenses available that you can raise against the charges and can present such arguments on your behalf in court. Also, if you need assistance with filing paperwork to retrieve a suspended license or to have a DUI/DWI charge expunged from your criminal record, your lawyer will be able to provide legal services that can assist you with these procedures as well. Remember, DUI/DWI convictions can have long-lasting effects on your life. Not only can they result in having a permanent criminal record, but they can also prevent you from applying for a loan, voting in elections, or securing the job you want if you are sentenced to jail time or prison for violating your state's DUI/DWI laws.

A lawyer with experience in this field can inform you about your rights, any defenses that are available to your case, and the possible penalties that you may face if convicted. An attorney can also potentially help you to get the best possible deal, especially if this is your first drunk driving offense and no one was seriously injured.

Call our office today at 212-994-7777 or complete the convenient online contact form to set up a consultation.