In very simple terms, drunk driving refers to operating a motor vehicle after consuming enough alcohol to be considered legally drunk. The definition of legally drunk may vary from state to state; generally speaking, a person is considered to be drunk if their blood alcohol content (or BAC) is above 0.08%.

Some states have designated 0.10% as their blood alcohol content percentage for being legally drunk. Still other states strictly enforce Zero Tolerance laws for drivers who are under 21 years of age; meaning, there is a 0.00 or 0.01% BAC limit for those states.

Drunk driving may also be known by several other names, such as Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”), Driving While Impaired (DWI), or Operating Under the Influence (“OUI”). Generally speaking, drunk driving refers to the consumption of alcohol, while terms such as DUI or DWI often include intoxication through other substances, such as illegal drugs.

If a police officer suspects that a person is driving drunk, this would constitute probable cause to pull the driver over. Some examples of this would be when they see that a person is speeding or swerving, and if they observe alcohol or drug paraphernalia in the vehicle.

Once a person has been pulled over, the officer will most likely request that they step out of their vehicle. They will ask them to take one of the following tests in order to determine whether they are drunk or sober:

  • Breathalyzer: This uses a handheld device to measure the concentration of alcohol by having the person blow into the device. The breathalyzer test can be administered either at the scene, or at the police station;
  • Blood or Urine Testing: These tests require that a medical professional administer the test, as well as produce lab results. Additionally, the police must first obtain a warrant; meaning, this test is not generally administered at the scene of the incident; and/or
  • Field Sobriety Tests: These tests include a variety of activities designed to test a person’s balance and agility. Some examples of the most commonly utilized field sobriety tests include touching a finger to your nose, reciting the alphabet, or standing on one foot while counting to a specified number.

If the driver fails any of these sobriety tests, the officer will have the authority to ticket and arrest them for drunk driving. Additionally, if the driver were to refuse to perform a test that can be administered at the scene, the officer may still arrest them if they suspect that the driver has been driving drunk.

It is important to note that things such as the smell of alcohol coming from a person’s breath, or from open containers in the car, can be used as evidence to be arrested for drunk driving. This remains true even if the containers are empty.

What Are the Punishments for Drunk Driving?

Punishments for drunk driving, while they vary from state to state, are generally harsh in order to deter or prevent the recurrence of drunk driving incidents. Sentencing is largely dependent upon whether the incident was a first-time offense, as first time drunk driving offenses can sometimes result in a lesser sentence. This generally includes a traffic citation or short-term license suspension.

Legal consequences for drunk driving increase in severity if the driver is cited for repeat or habitual driving offenses. Repeat offenses can result in serious criminal charges, even felony charges; drunk driving cases involving vehicular homicide or other serious injury generally result in greater punishments.

Generally speaking, the legal punishments for drunk driving include but may not be limited to:

  • Monetary Fines: First time drunk driving offenses generally involve fines of a few hundred dollars. Repeat offenses may involve fines that could exceed $500;
  • Incarceration and Probation: As previously mentioned, drunk driving is generally punished with a jail or prison sentence. Where this sentence is to be served, and for how long, depends on if the crime is considered to be a felony or a misdemeanor. First time drunk driving offenses generally result in a county jail sentence of no more than one year. Repeat offenders may face a sentence to be served in a state prison facility, exceeding one year. Probation may be an option for offenders who are found to be eligible;
  • Penalties Related to Driver’s License: It is not uncommon for those found to be guilty of drunk driving to have their driver’s license suspended, restricted, or outright revoked. The Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, may determine that it is appropriate to issue a temporary or indefinite loss of driving privileges;
  • Restitutionary Measures: If there are losses resulting from the drunk driving incident, the judge may order the defendant to reimburse the plaintiff for any such losses. Punitive damages may also be required if malice and/or criminal intent to cause harm are involved in the incident; and/or
  • Criminal Charges: Some states charge a first time drunk driving offense as a criminal misdemeanor. Especially serious or repeat drunk driving offenses can result in potential felony charges. This is important to note because the punishments for misdemeanor drunk driving include fines and jail time of no more than one year, while felony charges can result in prison sentences lasting more than one year and considerably larger fines.

Are There Any Alternative Sentences For Drunk Driving? How Else May a Drunk Driving Charge Affect My Life?

There are some alternative sentencing methods that may be utilized when punishing drunk driving. Some examples include, but may not be limited to:

  • Court Ordered Education: The most common examples of court ordered education related to drunk driving would be DUI or Alcoholics Anonymous classes. If the defendant is a repeat or habitual drunk driving offender, the judge may order them to attend a rehabilitation program in addition to the aforementioned legal punishments;
  • At Home Monitoring: Being monitored at home may be ordered in place of a jail sentence. The judge may order the defendant to submit to regular testing and home monitoring, which is often referred to as being under house arrest. This option is generally more expensive, and comes out of the defendant’s pocket, so it is not generally feasible for most defendants except for those who are considerably wealthy;.
  • Community Service: A judge may order the defendant to spend a set amount of hours doing community service instead of spending those hours in jail. Community service generally requires the defendant to work with a probation officer throughout the process; and
  • Vehicle Measures: The judge may order that a vehicle ignition interlock device be installed in the defendant’s vehicle. This device requires the driver to blow into the builtin breathalyzer before they can start the vehicle and drive. Or, the judge may order that the defendant’s vehicle is to be impounded or confiscated, and at the defendant’s expense. Such measures are generally reserved for cases involving serious injury and/or death.

Drunk driving can also negatively impact:

  • Insurance policies;
  • Loss of citizen’s privileges; and
  • Deportation.

Do I Need an Attorney If I Am Facing Drunk Driving Charges?

If you are being accused of drunk driving, you will need to consult with a local and experienced DUI or DWI lawyer as soon as possible. Because state laws vary widely in terms of drunk driving, it is important that you work with an area attorney so they can help you navigate your state’s specific laws.

An experienced and local DUI or DWI attorney will be able to assert any available legal defenses on your behalf, such as no probable cause. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.