In the state of Washington, driving under the influence (DUI) is illegal. While all states have laws against drunk/drugged driving, the statutes vary between jurisdictions in big and small ways. Anyone driving in Washington state should take the time to understand its DUI laws, including the different ways a driver can be found to violate the statute and the resulting DUI penalties.
DUI Laws in Washington
Washington's primary laws regarding driving under the influence are found in Washington statute RCW Section 46.61.502, which provides that a person is guilty of a DUI if they drive while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, marijuana or any other drug. It sets out four different DUI circumstances when the person driving:
- Has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 percent or higher.
- Has a THC concentration of 5.00 or higher.
- Is under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or any other drug.
- Is under the combined influence of intoxicating liquor, marijuana and any other drug.
While a person can get a DUI in Washington for driving under the influence, they can also get a DUI if they have actual physical control of a vehicle with a BAC level of 0.08 percent or a THC concentration of 5.00 or higher, or while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Actual physical control means that a person is physically positioned so they can control the mechanisms of the vehicle even if it isn't moving or running. For example, if a person is sitting in the driver's seat with keys in the ignition, they are in actual physical control of the car for the purposes of Washington state law.
Per Se DUI
Every state has a provision in its drunk driving laws that makes it a DUI to drive with a BAC level of 0.08 percent or higher. This is called a "per se" DUI, meaning that proof that the person has exceeded the BAC legal limit is enough, in and of itself, to get a DUI conviction. Alcohol affects people differently, so some people may hit and exceed this limit after drinking a lot less than others. That is why charts advising a driver how much beer or whiskey they can consume and still be legal can be misleading.
Washington state also has a per se DUI law for marijuana. That is, a person is guilty of a DUI if a blood test shows a THC driving threshold of five nanograms (5.00) of THC per milliliter of blood drawn. No other evidence of impairment or intoxication is necessary when this limit has been met or exceeded.
Implied Consent and Chemical Test Refusal
Both per se DUIs depend on chemical testing to establish the blood alcohol concentration for an alcohol DUI or the THC blood concentration for a marijuana DUI. Washington, like many states, has passed an implied consent law that provides that anyone opting to drive in the state has implicitly consented to take a breathalyzer test if stopped for a DUI. Refusal to do so carries administrative penalties including two years of license revocation for a first offense, three years for a second offense, and four years for a third offense.
The implied consent statute does not specify blood testing, which is necessary to determine the THC blood concentration. However, the police can arrest a person they believe to be under the influence of marijuana and obtain a search warrant to get a blood sample. Alternatively, the driver can consent to this test.
Underage DUI Laws in Washington
Under Washington law, drivers under the age of 21 are not permitted to buy alcohol. The DUI law also provides that these young people cannot drive a motor vehicle or be in actual physical control of a vehicle after consuming alcohol or marijuana.
Under RCW Section 46.61.503, a minor is guilty of "operating a vehicle after consuming alcohol or marijuana" if they have a BAC level between 0.02 percent and 0.08 percent, or a THC concentration above 0.00 but below 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood. This offense is a misdemeanor, and the maximum sentence is 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Note that drivers under 21 can also be convicted of a regular Washington state DUI. If the young driver takes a breath test that establishes a BAC level of 0.08 percent or higher, they can be prosecuted for a misdemeanor per se DUI and receive the same penalties as an adult. The same is true of a per se THC violation or a violation for being under the influence, without testing.
Penalties for DUIs in Washington
Washington sets out the penalties for DUI violations in the statutes. These can include administrative sanctions, including a driver's license suspension period and a requirement to get an Alcohol Assessment and Treatment Report. Criminal penalties include jail time, fines, license suspension or revocation, and a mandated period to drive with an ignition interlock device (IID) installed in the their vehicle.
The severity of the penalties depend in part on the number of prior offense DUIs a driver has on their record. The look-back period in Washington state is seven years. That is, someone arrested for a DUI charge will be treated as a first-time offender if they have not had any DUIs within the previous seven years.
Criminal DUI Penalties
A first DUI conviction in Washington is classified as a gross misdemeanor. It carries penalties of a jail term between one and 364 days in jail. One day is the mandatory minimum sentence, but an offender can opt instead to serve house arrest for 15 days or spend 90 days in Washington's 24/7 sobriety program. They will also face a fine of between $350 and $500.
If the first-offense driver's BAC level tested at 0.15 percent or higher, or if they refused to take a breath test, the minimum sentence will be two days in jail and the fines will increase as well.
If the driver had one DUI in the previous seven years, they face between 30 and 364 days in jail and $500 to $5,000 in fines. Similar options are available as for first-offenders to avoid going to jail. Second-offense drivers who refuse testing or had a BAC level of 0.15 percent or more face increased fines and a minimum of 45 days in jail.
Penalties for Prior DUIs
With two prior DUIs in the past seven years, a Washington driver faces even more jail time and fines. Jail time will be at least 90 days, while fines can rise to $5,000. A third offender who refuses chemical testing or has a BAC level of 0.15 percent or more can get up to $10,000 in fines and 120 days in jail.
Additional penalties apply in some circumstances. If the DUI driver had a passenger in the car who was under 16 years old at the time of the DUI offense, the driver will get extra time in jail and higher fines.
- Washington Laws: RCW Section 46.61.502 Driving Under the Influence
- Washington Laws: RCW Section 46.61.5055 Alcohol and Drug Violators Penalty Schedule
- DUI Process: Washington DUI Laws
- Washington DOL: Driving Under the Influence
- DUI Driving Law: Washington’s Drunk Driving Laws and Penalties
- Seattle DUI: Washington State
- Washington Laws: RCW Section 46.61.503 Driving Under 21 Consuming Alcohol or Marijuana Penalties
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.