First-Offense DUI in California: What to Expect & Penalties

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Driving under the influence in California is a crime, not just a traffic citation. It is often called a DUI. The state has different DUI laws that apply to adult drivers, which are found in the California Vehicle Code. One law makes it illegal to drive under the influence; the others make it illegal to drive with a high blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

While most DUI arrests are made for driving under the influence of alcohol, the offense can refer to any substance, including drugs, if it affects a person's driving ability. Generally a first-offense DUI is charged as a misdemeanor, but, under certain conditions, it can be charged as a felony. Here are the facts that everyone driving in California should know about the offense of driving under the influence.

California DUI Laws: The Basics

California has several laws that make it illegal for an adult to drive under the influence of alcohol. They are found in California Vehicle Code (VC) 23152 and provide two different standards for the crime of driving under the influence of alcohol. A driver can get a DUI for violating the law's general provision or for violating one of the blood alcohol level provisions, or both.

The general provision found at California VC 23152(a) provides: "It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage to drive a vehicle." To convict a driver of that offense the state must prove both that the person was actually driving a vehicle and that they were impaired by alcohol or under the influence of drugs.

California's BAC Laws

Other provisions in VC 23152 make it illegal for a person to operate a vehicle if they have a certain percentage of blood alcohol content. Under the statute, the percent, by weight, of alcohol in a person’s blood is based on grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, or grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.

For example, VC 23152(b), makes it illegal for a person who has 0.08 percent or more alcohol in their blood to drive a vehicle. Under subsection (d) of VC 23152, a driver operating a commercial vehicle is considered to be driving under the influence if they have 0.04 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in their blood. Under subsection (e), the 0.04 percent also applies to someone driving a vehicle for hire.

If a driver's blood test or breath test shows these statutory levels of alcohol, they are considered under the influence per se, meaning under the influence as a matter of law. If this is the case, the driver cannot legally argue that they were not impaired. These are obviously easier cases for the state to prove than general impairment from alcohol.

Automatic Administrative Suspension for a DUI

California has taken a strong stance against driving under the influence. Beginning in 2011, the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) implemented a policy of automatically suspending the license of a person arrested for a DUI. According to Los Angeles DUI Attorney, this is known as an automatic administrative suspension, or admin per se suspension, and it is imposed on a driver from the moment they are arrested even before they appear in court to plead to the charge.

To implement this policy, the arresting officer simply confiscates the driver's license of anyone picked up for driving under the influence, and the suspension goes into effect before the driver goes to court. The justification for this is that it is an administrative action by a bureaucratic body, not a court action or a criminal penalty. A driver can request a hearing from the DMV within 10 days of the arrest but this is not the same as a criminal trial. The only penalty the DMV hearing officer can decide is the license suspension issue. If no hearing is requested, the suspension goes into effect within 30 days of the arrest.

Factors That Impact DUI Penalties

A person convicted of a DUI in California can get jail time, be assessed a fine, have their license suspended, and/or be required to attend courses about substance use and abuse. Not every DUI is the same, and potential penalties vary in different circumstances.

The two main factors impacting DUI penalties are whether the driver had prior DUI offenses and whether anyone was injured. California DUIs are called priorable offenses, meaning that the penalties get more severe with each successive DUI conviction within a 10-year period.

Misdemeanor DUI Offenses

Most DUIs are charged as misdemeanors, not felonies. A misdemeanor in California is a less serious offense than a felony, and the maximum potential imprisonment penalty is one year in county jail. A first offense DUI will be charged as a misdemeanor unless someone is injured.

The punishment for a misdemeanor DUI can include probation for a term of up to five years; up to a year imprisonment in county jail; fines of up to several thousand dollars; mandatory alcohol/drug education classes; suspension of the driver's license; or restrictions imposed on it. A driver convicted of a DUI may be required to install an ignition interlock device (IID) on their vehicle if they are allowed to drive. This device is a mini-breathalyzer that prevents the vehicle from operating unless the driver first takes a breath test to establish they are alcohol-free.

First-Offense Misdemeanor DUI

A driver arrested for a DUI offense in California will be treated as a first offender if they do not have a previous DUI on their driving record. The penalties the driver may be given will depend in part on where their trial is held, since different counties have different policies about mandatory jail time and fine amounts.

Generally, the penalties for a first-time DUI are likely to be three years of probation with six months in jail in some counties; three months of DUI school about substance abuse; fines of between $1,500 and $2,000, depending on the county; a six-month driver's license suspension period; or a restricted license. The court may order that all driving must be done using an IID for up to six months.

Obviously, probation is preferable to jail time, but it's important to realize that DUI probation has rules attached. Violation of the rules will usually lead to jail time. These conditions are imposed in every case: The person cannot drive with alcohol in their blood; cannot refuse a breathalyzer test if stopped by the police; cannot commit any other crimes during the DUI probation period; and must install an IID for six months. As a condition for probation, the court may also opt to require that the person attend a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous, participate in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Victim Impact Panel program and/or pay restitution to any victim.

DUI Penalty Enhancements

In some misdemeanor cases for DUIs, a court will increase the standard penalties. For example, this may happen in some counties if the driver was caught significantly exceeding the speed limit when pulled over. A driver who refuses to take a breathalyzer test can also be assessed supplemental penalties, as can a driver who was far over the legal limit for blood alcohol, driving with a BAC that exceeded 0.15.

Penalty enhancements also apply if there is a child under the age of 14 in the car at the time a person is stopped for a DUI. This is considered child endangerment under California Penal Code 273(a).

First Offense DUI With Injury

The prosecutor can charge a driver with a DUI with injury if the impaired driving causes bodily injury to another person. This person can be someone outside the vehicle, such as the driver or a passenger in another car, a motorcyclist, a bike rider or a skateboard rider. It can also be a passenger in the DUI vehicle.

A DUI with injury is called a wobbler offense in California. That means when the prosecutor charges DUI with injury, they can opt to charge it as a misdemeanor or a felony. This depends on both the driver's criminal history and the circumstances of the accident. A first-offense DUI is usually charged as a misdemeanor even if there is an injury.

If the DUI with injury is charged as a misdemeanor, potential penalties are greater than a simple first-time DUI. Probation can extend to five years with stricter rules; jail time up to one year may be imposed; fines can rise to $5,000; and the required substance program time can increase to 18 or even 30 months. The court can mandate complete restitution to all injured parties and can restrict or suspend the driver for a longer period.

First-Time DUI as Felony

A Vehicle Code 23153 DUI with injuries can be charged as a felony if the driver has multiple prior DUI convictions, one prior felony DUI conviction or if they cause serious injury or death to another person. A first-time DUI can only be charged as a felony if the impaired driving causes serious injuries or death to another person.

The potential penalties rise sharply if Vehicle Code 23153 is prosecuted as a felony. The potential incarceration is no longer time in county jail, but a jail sentence in the California State Prison system. This amount of prison time ranges from 16 months to 10 years. Prison time can be supplemented by an additional sentence of one to six years if multiple persons were injured and the injuries were significant.

In addition, the maximum amount of the fine increases to $5,000 and the alcohol/drug program required time goes up to a maximum of 30 months. The court can also require that complete restitution be made to all parties.

Indirect Costs of a DUI

and hiring a In addition to court-imposed fines and sanctions, a driver convicted of a first-time DUI will likely experience indirect costs. First, there are the costs of going to court that can exceed $800 depending on the county, the court and the case. As well, the alcohol/drug program is not free; it can cost over $600 depending on how long the driver must attend and the particular program.

Installation of an IID will cost the driver a per-day fee of around $2.50, plus an installation fee of $100 or more. In addition, the court may order a $500 contribution to the California Victim Compensation Program. The driver's vehicle is usually towed away and may be impounded after a DUI arrest, costing hundreds of dollars. The cost of taking taxis or ride-sharing during a license suspension adds up, too. Vehicle insurance may increase by thousands of dollars a year.

If a driver decides to fight the DUI charges, they will also incur fees by hiring a DUI defense attorney. These vary depending on where the attorney practices and the complexity of the case, but can run hundreds of dollars per hour. It is also important to figure in the amount of lost income for the time spent in jail or prison.