Driving under the influence, also known as DUI or drunk driving, is a crime in every state in the United States. A DUI occurs when an individual is stopped by law enforcement while driving and is found to have a blood alcohol content (BAC) that is over the legal limit.

The typical BAC legal limit is 0.08%. However, some state statutes vary regarding the legal amount of the BAC, but it is typically 0.08% to 0.10%. Law enforcement officers often use a breathalyzer test to determine a driver’s BAC.

What is the Penalty for Driving Under the Influence?

Driving under the influence may be charged either as a misdemeanor or as a felony. For a first-time offender, a DUI is typically charged as a misdemeanor.

Misdemeanors carry less severe penalties than felonies. This also applies for DUI charges.

The penalty for a misdemeanor DUI varies depending on the state in which the individual resides. Typically, penalties may include:

  • Jail time;
  • Community service; and
  • Revocation of the individual’s driver’s license.

The penalty for a felony DUI also varies by state. However, it may typically result in a state prison sentence as well as revocation of the individual’s driver’s license.

What Determines if the DUI Charge is a Misdemeanor?

Each state has its own laws that dictate how drunk driving offenses are charged and what punishments are imposed after a conviction. In the majority of states, a first time offense over the per se illegal BAC content limit of 0.08% is charged as a misdemeanor, or that state’s equivalent.

If the defendant is convicted, they are typically required to serve a short jail sentence or pay criminal fines. The court may also order the defendant to:

  • Attend alcohol treatment and education courses;
  • Perform community service; or
  • Have an ignition interlock device installed on their vehicle for a set period of time.

In many cases, the approach for a first time offender is that individuals make mistakes and alcohol abuse is an issue that affects millions of Americans. Therefore, it is important to balance legal and financial consequences with the ability to obtain help for an addiction.

Can a DUI/DWI be Charged as a Felony?

Yes, as noted above, a DUI may be charged as a felony. The goal of DUI laws is to punish and deter dangerous behavior while also providing an opportunity for individuals who are willing to accept help for their drug or alcohol problems.

Most states have a range of possible charges and punishments for DUIs. There are some instances in which a DUI will be charged as a felony, even if this is the defendant’s first offense. These situations may include:

  • Enhanced BAC DUIs: If an individual’s BAC level is above a certain percentage, which is 0.15% in many states, the law provides that they receive a more serious charge. This applies even if the defendant is a first time offender because of the dangerous nature of such impairment;
  • Death or bodily injury enhancements: Another circumstance which may elevate a DUI charge is if the defendant caused an accident which resulted in serious bodily injury or death to another individual. Separate criminal charges in addition to the DUI charges may be filed against the defendant;
  • Prior convictions: If the individual has a prior DUI conviction on their record, the law usually provides that the individual will receive a higher charge with more severe punishments. The majority of states also have a look back period during which prior convictions may be considered and after that period, the defendant’s slate is wiped clean. It is not typically a short period of time, as many states require that the defendant have a clean record for 5, 7, or 10 years prior to the clock resetting.

What are the Stages of a DUI Case?

There are several stages to any DUI case. It is important to note that these stages may vary depending on the defendant and the circumstances of the case.

A DUI case typically includes the following stages:

  • Arrest;
  • Booking and bail;
  • DUI arraignment;
  • Plea bargain.

An arrest occurs when the law enforcement officer has probable cause to conduct the traffic stop and determines that the driver was driving under the influence. This is done by administering a breathalyzer test or conducting field sobriety testing. If the driver is found to be under the influence, they will be arrested.

Following the arrest, the individual is taken to the police station or sheriff’s office and booked into the jail. At this time, the law enforcement officer does the following:

  • Obtains the driver’s personal information;
  • Files the police report;
  • Takes the driver’s fingerprints; and
  • Any other necessary steps following the arrest.

After an arrest, a bail hearing occurs. At this hearing, the court determines whether or not the individual can be released on bail. If an individual makes bail, they are trusted to appear at their court date without being detained in a jail cell.

The next step is a DUI arraignment. At this time, the defendant is formally arraigned, which means they are read the charges in a courtroom by a judge. The judge then asks whether the defendant wishes to enter a guilty plea, a not guilty plea, or a no contest plea.

A DUI defendant may make a deal with the prosecution, called a plea bargain, for a lighter sentence if they enter a guilty plea. A plea bargain is typically rare in DUI cases, but they can be when the DUI charges are serious or the defendant is a repeat offender.

What are the Stages of DUI Trial?

If a defendant does not enter a plea bargain, their case will go to trial. The following are the steps that the defendant may expect if their case goes to trial:

  • Pretrial motions;
  • The trial;
  • Sentencing; and
  • DUI appeal.

Prior to a trial, the defendant’s attorney may bring about various motions, called pretrial motions, which attempt to exclude damaging evidence from being used by the prosecution during the trial. These motions typically include attempts to suppress BAC testing results, incriminating statements made during an arrest, and any other possible evidence.

The trial phase includes:

  • Choosing a jury;
  • Opening statements by the prosecution and defense;
  • Testimony from witnesses, including law enforcement;
  • Jury deliberations; and
  • The verdict.

If the defendant is convicted of a DUI, they may face several possible consequences, including:

  • Incarceration in jail;
  • Criminal fines;
  • Community service;
  • Installation of an ignition interlock device; and
  • Other possible penalties.

If applicable, the defendant may appeal their DUI conviction. The defendant’s attorney will submit a request which asks a higher court to review the case for any legal errors.

Even after the trial phase is completed, the defendant may still be required to handle administrative matters which are related to the DUI charges. For example, a defendant may be required to attend a mandatory DUI traffic course or meet with a probation officer as a condition of their sentencing.

Should I Seek Legal Counsel?

It is essential to seek the assistance of an experienced DUI/DWI lawyer if you are involved in any DUI case. DUI cases may be complex, especially if the incident involved a serious injury or property damage.

As noted above, you may also be facing serious charges that may have serious and life-altering consequences. Your lawyer can review your case, ensure your rights are protected, and represent you during any court appearances.