It is illegal to drive or otherwise be in control of a vehicle in Ohio while impaired by drugs, alcohol or a combination of both. The state calls this charge operating a vehicle while impaired, or OVI, though it might be known as driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI) in other states. While a driver's first offense is usually a misdemeanor, the penalties for OVI are serious. In some instances, a prosecutor can decide to reduce the drunk driving charge to a reckless operation or physical control OVI, which carry lesser penalties than a standard OVI.
Definition of Ohio OVI
According to Ohio Revised Code Section 4511.19, the state considers a driver operating or otherwise in physical control of a vehicle to be legally impaired with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or a urine alcohol concentration of 0.11 percent or higher. A charge with a BAC or other substance-based concentration legal limit is a "per se" OVI because it doesn't otherwise require proof of the driver's actual impairment. Minor drivers under 21 face OVI conviction for driving with a BAC between 0.02 and 0.08 percent.
If a driver has drugs in their system, they face an OVI charge based on the amount of the controlled substance. These limits differ depending on a person's physical traits, including weight and gender. The legal limits for drugs are:
- Amphetamines: 100 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) of blood.
- Cocaine: 50 ng/mL of blood.
- Heroin: 2000 ng/mL of blood.
- Marijuana: 20 ng/mL of blood.
- LSD: 25 ng/mL of blood.
First Offense OVI Administrative Penalties
According to NOLO, a driver who exceeds the legal limit of drugs or alcohol in their system faces the immediate confiscation of their license. The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles places the driver on suspension if a blood, breath or urine test shows that their BAC was at the legal limit or higher at the time of the traffic stop. A driver's license suspension can last from one to three years, which the driver can challenge up to 30 days after arraignment.
After a mandated suspension of 15 days, the driver can apply for a restricted license to use for driving to and from school or work. There is no requirement for a judge to grant an offender driving privileges, which may come with caveats such as restricted driving hours, OVI license plates or additional conditions the court deems appropriate. It may also require the driver to have an ignition interlock device (IID) installed in their vehicle for several months.
First Offense OVI Criminal Penalties
Under Ohio law, first-time offense penalties mostly vary by how intoxicated a driver is. Low-level OVI offenders who have a BAC of less than 0.8 percent face:
- Mandatory three or more days in jail.
- Maximum of five years of probation.
- Fine of $375 to $1,075, plus related costs and fees.
Drivers with a BAC of 0.17 percent or higher face a high-level OVI charge. With this charge, the mandatory jail time doubles, and drivers must display restricted license plates. Underage OVI, a fourth-degree misdemeanor, carries penalties of a maximum 30 days in jail, $250 in fines and a license suspension of three months to two years.
Reduced Penalties for OVI Offenses
In some instances, a judge will reduce an offender's incarceration time if they participate in a community control sanction program, complete a minimum of three days of driver's intervention courses, and a minimum of five days in jail, plus 18 days of house arrest with a monitoring device.
The driver may also avoid some jail time and license suspension time if they agree to install and drive with an IID for a time determined by the court. A judge may also order substance abuse treatment for a first OVI offender if deemed appropriate. In some instances, a prosecutor will ask for a reduced charge of reckless driving or physical control OVI, depending on the circumstances of the incident.
Reduced Sentence of Physical Control OVI
According to Ohio Revised Code Section 4511.194, a vehicle does not have to be in motion for a driver to receive an OVI charge – the driver can be in "actual physical control" of the car while impaired by drugs, alcohol or a combination of both. This means that being in the driver's seat while holding the keys or the ignition fob is enough for an OVI arrest, which may occur even if the offender decides to sleep off the intoxicating effects of the substances in their car.
A physical control OVI is a first-degree misdemeanor. It adds no points to the driver's record and carries lesser penalties than a standard OVI. The court may sentence the driver to a maximum of six months in jail and a fine of $1,000. A charge of physical control OVI has no mandatory license suspension, but a judge can impose one, and the driver will have to pay $475 to have their license reinstated.
Lesser Charge of Reckless Operation of a Motor Vehicle
A reckless operation charge does not necessarily have to do with impairment. It can cover offenses such as speeding or traffic accidents caused by a negligent driver. Ohio Revised Code Section 4511.20 defines it as a driver who operates "a vehicle, trackless trolley or streetcar on any street or highway in willful or wanton disregard of the safety of persons or property." A prosecutor may seek this lesser charge for several reasons:
- Lack of sufficient evidence for OVI charge.
- BAC test result just over the legal limit.
- Issues with a chemical test result.
- Issues with reasonable cause pertaining to the incident.
- No actual impairment by the driver.
- No damages or injuries.
- Driver has a clean record with no prior convictions.
This misdemeanor does not carry as many penalties as a first offense OVI and does not stay on a driver's criminal record for as long. It carries penalties of 30 days in jail, a $250 fine and adds four points to an offender's license. A judge may also order the driver to attend substance abuse education and treatment courses, and suspend their driver's license. After they complete the suspension, the driver can apply and pay a $40 fee to have their driving privileges reinstated.
- NOLO: First-Offense OVI/DUI in Ohio
- Ohio Laws and Rules: ORC Section 4511.194 Having Physical Control of Vehicle While Under the Influence
- Ohio Laws and Rules: ORC Section 4511.20 Operation in Willful or Wanton Disregard of the Safety of Persons or Property
- Ohio Laws and Rules: ORC Section 4511.19 Operating Vehicle Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs - OVI
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.