What happens if you get a DUI?

Getting stopped for drunk driving (commonly referred to as “DWI” – driving while intoxicated or “DUI” – driving under the influence) is a serious offense and can have different consequences depending upon where you live. All 50 states have “per se” laws defining it a crime to drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level at or above the prescribed threshold. At this time, every state has set this maximum BAC level at 0.08 percent. However, some states have enacted zero tolerance laws that lower that level for underage drivers and high BAC laws that impose harsher penalties for those caught with levels of 0.16 to 0.20.

Getting Stopped for Drunk Driving

When you’re stopped for drunk driving (or for something else and a police officer has reason to believe you’ve been drinking), you will generally be required to take a sobriety test (blood, breath or urine) to determine your BAC level. Most states have implied consent laws which means that you must comply with a test or face fines and/or license suspension – sometimes right on the spot - for refusing to take the test. Some states have abandoned the urine test due to reliability issues. The driver usually gets his choice of the available tests. Which test should you choose? That depends. A breath testing machine may be easier to fault for accuracy than a blood test, but a breath testing machine cannot test for the presence of drugs. You must remember that a DWI can also be “under the influence of drugs."

What Happens After a DUI Arrest?

If you refuse the test or are found to have a BAC over the state limit, chances are you’ll be taken into custody and brought to a police station where you’ll be held until someone can pick you up, or until next morning when you have sobered up. In addition, your license may be temporarily suspended and your vehicle may be impounded for a period of time after the incident. However, these penalties seldom apply to refusing to perform FST’s (field sobriety tests), which are the physical coordination tests an officer has you perform.

Going to Court for a Drunk Driving Charge

Aside from a possible administrative hearing that reviews the circumstances surrounding your arrest to see if your license should be administratively suspended (as opposed to suspended by the Court), you must generally go to court where a jury or judge will decide your fate. In any criminal case, including DWI’s, you have the right to a jury trial, but once convicted, it is up to the judge what punishment you will receive. In many states there are mandatory punishments and consequences that deny the judge any discretion as to the punishment if your BA is of a certain level, or if you have refused to take a mandatory test. Generally, for each prior conviction of DWI within the previous 5-10 years, the punishment will become progressively severe, and these may also be mandatory minimum sentences.

If you’re found guilty, most courts will:

  • impose fines (and some add on an additional driver responsibility tax)
  • suspend or revoke your license (Motor Vehicle Departments may do so even if a court does not)
  • require participation in a drunk driver education program
  • add points to your license (and your insurance will most likely increase)
  • sentence you to jail or require community service work as an alternative
  • put you on parole (called “probation” in some states)
  • impose various statutory fees intended to offset the state’s budget expenses on DUI/DWI cases

In addition, some judges and some states may require you to participate in alcohol or drug treatment programs as part of a parole program or have an ignition interlock device installed on your vehicle. You may also receive as a condition of parole (probation) that you not drink any alcoholic beverage while on parole, or not even enter a tavern.

Getting Your Drivers License Back

Some states allow for provisional, conditional, hardship or temporary licenses. This varies greatly by state, judge and circumstances and is often granted only with participation in an education program or by showing a family hardship. You may also have to show proof of liability insurance to get your license back.

Getting Help

Make sure you know your state's DUI law and consider hiring a DUI lawyer to assist you through the process. Many lawyers limit their practice to drunk driving, know the system and may provide a free consultation. Find a DUI attorney in your area.

Related Articles:
First DUI: What You Should Know
What are the possible punishments for drunk driving?