In the state of Washington, driving, or being in actual control of a motor vehicle, while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a crime. Sanctions increase with each successive conviction, but even a first offense driving under the influence (DUI) charge will result in jail time as well as other administrative and criminal penalties. The law is different in some ways from the driving while intoxicated (DWI) and DUI laws of other states, so anyone driving in Washington should be sure to get a clear overview of the consequences of a first offense DUI.
Washington State DUI Laws
Under Washington laws, driving and drinking or using drugs is a crime. The DUI laws are found in RCW Section 46.61.502 Driving Under the Influence. This statute makes it illegal for anyone to either drive, or have actual physical control of, a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, specifically including marijuana.
Note that the Washington state law includes any drugs, legal or illegal, that impact a person's driving faculties. Actual physical control includes sitting in the driver's seat even if the car's engine is not running.
The general crime of driving under the influence can be established by evidence of alcohol or drug impairment. Proof is usually made by testimony from law enforcement as to the person's behavior in and out of the car.
Per Se DUIs in Washington State
In addition, the statute contains two "per se" violations. Like most states, Washington makes it a DUI for a person to drive a vehicle or be in actual physical control of a vehicle on public streets with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. A BAC level of 0.04 percent applies to commercial drivers; for those under the age of 21, the BAC legal limit is 0.02 percent. Per se means that if a chemical test reveals that a driver had a BAC level at or above the appropriate limit, no further proof of intoxication or impairment is required.
There is a similar per se limit for marijuana, a type of law that is not common in other states. The Washington code sets a blood limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood as determined by blood testing.
Chemical Test Refusal and Implied Consent
In order to establish either of these per se DUI offenses, Washington law enforcement must have the driver take a chemical test after being arrested for a DUI. The breathalyzer machine is the chemical test generally used to determine blood alcohol. A driver arrested for a DUI is asked to blow into the device which determines the amount of alcohol in their system.
If the driver was injured and taken to a hospital, their blood will be checked for alcohol content by medical professionals. A blood test is also required for drug testing, including testing for marijuana or THC in the driver's system.
Given that a person can be more easily convicted of a Washington DUI if they fail a breathalyzer test, drivers may be reluctant to agree to this testing. However, Washington's implied consent law provides that, by driving on state roads, drivers implicitly consent to breath testing if they are arrested for a DUI. Refusal to submit to a breath test is itself an offense and incurs administrative sanctions including suspension or revocation of a driver's license.
First Offense DUI Administrative Penalties
In Washington state, the first sanctions that occur after a person is arrested for a first time DUI are administrative penalties. These involve license revocation or suspension. A driver who refuses to submit to a chemical test is subject to a mandatory administrative license revocation by the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) for one year for a first offense. A person who agrees to testing and tests over the legal BAC limit will face an automatic license suspension of 90 days for a first offense.
These actions are considered civil, not criminal, and are completely separate from the criminal case. Even if the prosecutor decides not to take the DUI case to court, or if it goes to court and the driver is found innocent, the DOL action remains unaffected.
The DOL license suspension or revocation starts automatically on the 31st day following the DUI arrest unless the driver requests an administrative hearing within a week of the arrest. Drivers must make the request and forward the fee for the hearing to the DOT within this time. Generally, drivers do not succeed in these hearings given the implied consent law.
First Offense DUI Criminal Penalties
A first offense DUI in Washington is charged as a gross misdemeanor, and anyone convicted of drunk driving will face certain mandatory minimum penalties. That means that a judge is legally obligated to impose those DUI penalties, although alternative punishments are sometimes available.
If a driver with no prior offenses has a BAC level over the legal limit but under 0.15 percent, or is found guilty of driving under the influence without taking a chemical test, the minimum penalties for a first offense are one day (24 hours) in jail or 15 days of house arrest with electronic monitoring, a mandatory minimum fine of $990.50 and a driver's license suspension of 90 days. The court will also require that the driver install an ignition interlock device (IID) on every vehicle they own or operate regularly when they are allowed to drive again. A driver ordered to use an IID must pay a court-approved company to install the devices.
An IID is a type of breathalyzer that is attached to a vehicle. A driver must blow into the device before starting the car. The car will not start if the driver's breath has alcohol on it and it will demand periodic retesting as the individual drives.
Higher Penalties for Higher BACs or Refusals
Those convicted of a first offense DUI with a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher or who refused the chemical testing will get higher penalties. The minimum sentence for a DUI conviction 48 hours of jail time or 30 days of house arrest with electronic home monitoring, and the minimum fine is $1,245.50. The minimum license suspension period is for one year for the higher BAC level; two years for chemical test refusal.
First Offense DUI Deferral
In Washington state, a driver charged with a first offense DUI can petition the court for the Deferred Prosecution program. This includes a two-year controlled substance treatment program. The person must admit that they suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction and that they require assistance.
The program requires total abstinence from alcohol and mind-altering drugs and participation in a recovery self-help support group. The program may include an intensive inpatient or outpatient portion.
After completing the two-year treatment program, the driver continues to be supervised by the court for an additional three years, including driving with an IID. The court will dismiss the DUI charge at the end of that five-year period.
- Washington Laws: RCW Section 46.61.502 Driving Under the Influence
- Washington Laws: Section RCW 46.61.5055 Alcohol and Drug Violators – Penalty Schedule
- DUI Process: Washington DUI Laws
- Washington DOL: Driving Under the Influence
- Seattle DUI: DOL Implied Consent
- Seattle DUI: Washington State DUI 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.