Impaired driving is a serious criminal offense in Washington, D.C. While it's a misdemeanor, the penalties include jail time, fines, license suspension, attendance at substance abuse education and counseling programs, and probation, among others. A DUI conviction can impact a driver's future employment, housing and insurance costs for years to come and stays on a driver's record for a decade. An offender can receive lesser charges such as operating while intoxicated (OWI) and reckless driving, depending upon the circumstances of their case.
D.C. Drunk Driving Statistics
According to WTOP News, drunk driving data in the nation's capital shows the success of its aggressive enforcement efforts. At the same time, however, there is considerable room for improvement. Fatalities caused by impaired driving have decreased by 1.16 percent from 2017 to 2018, and injuries from alcohol- and drug-related accidents went down by 6.8 percent during the same period.
Although deaths and injuries have gone down, accidents and arrests have increased. Crashes caused by intoxication went up 0.56 percent from 2017 to 2018, while driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated (DWI) arrests went up by 3.51 percent at the same time.
Types of Impaired Driving Charges
According to the DC Metropolitan Police Department, three main types of impairment laws are enforced in the nation's capital. They are:
- Driving While Intoxicated (DWI): Drivers with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher face conviction based on a chemical test result.
- Driving Under the Influence (DUI): Drivers with a BAC of 0.07 percent or less face a DUI conviction.
- Underage Driving: Drivers under 21 cannot buy, drink or otherwise possess alcohol. If law enforcement finds an underage driver with any alcohol level in their system, they face DWI charges.
A breathalyzer or chemical test result is not the only way to gauge impairment. A police officer may observe obvious signs of it when conducting field sobriety tests on a motorist. In this instance, an arrest can occur, even if the driver's BAC level is below the legal limit for intoxication.
OWI vs. DUI in Washington D.C.
The District of Columbia has an impairment charge that doesn't exist in other jurisdictions: Operating while intoxicated (OWI) is different from a DUI charge in that it carries lesser penalties, but the way a prosecutor proves impairment to the court is the same – they must show impairment by the vehicle operator to "any degree."
The penalties for OWI are:
- First offense: Maximum 90 days in jail and $500 fine.
- Second offense: Jail time from five days to a year and fine between $1,000 to $2,500.
- Third offense: Jail time from 10 days to one year and fine of $1,000 to $5,000.
DUI and DWI Penalties
According to the DC Metropolitan Police Department, penalties for DUI and DWI vary based on the circumstances of the traffic stop and particularly on the number of prior convictions a driver has incurred within the past 15 years. The vehicle does not need to be in motion for an offense to occur; the driver only needs to be in "actual physical control" of the vehicle, which could mean sitting in the driver's seat while parked on a public roadway.
The penalties for DUI and DWI are the same:
- First Offense: Maximum 180 days in jail, fine of $1,000 or both, license suspension of six months and installation of an ignition interlock device (IID) for six months.
- Second Offense: Maximum one year in jail, fine of $2,500 to $5,000 or both, license suspension of one year and installation of an IID in the driver's vehicle for one year.
- Third Offense: Maximum one year in jail, fine of $2,500 to $10,000, license suspension of two years, and installation of an IID for two years. If the third offense occurs within five years, the driver will receive a license suspension of five years.
Additional Factors in Sentencing
Depending on the circumstances of the traffic stop, a driver can face additional penalties, including:
- Drivers with a BAC of 0.20 percent or higher serve five additional days of mandatory jail time.
- Drivers with a BAC of 0.25 percent or higher serve 10 additional days of mandatory incarceration.
- Drivers with a BAC of at least 0.30 percent serve 15 additional days of mandatory incarceration.
- Drivers impaired by Schedule 1 drugs receive an extra 15 days of jail time for their first offense.
- The completion of a substance abuse evaluation followed by a recommended education and treatment program for drivers with two or more offenses.
- Impounding of the driver's vehicle for 24 hours after the arrest.
- Any offense that involves injury or death incurs a permanent driver's license revocation.
If there were minors in the vehicle at the time of the traffic stop, the court will sentence the driver to a mandatory minimum sentence of five days for each correctly restrained child and 10 days for each improperly restrained child. Fines increase by $500 for each correctly restrained child and $1,000 for children restrained incorrectly.
Washington, D.C. and Felony DUIs
According to Scrofano Law, felony DUI is rare in the District of Columbia. DUI prosecution is under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), which can only prosecute misdemeanors. In the event of a DUI felony in D.C., the federal U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO) has jurisdiction to prosecute the case. Since the OAG may be reluctant to relinquish jurisdiction to the USAO, a driver will likely face only a misdemeanor charge and serve the one-year maximum jail time.
This doesn't mean that the penalties for DUI aren't severe – the district is tough on drivers who get behind the wheel while impaired, especially with a high BAC. There are several ways to violate the law and trigger mandatory jail sentences and fines.
Zero Tolerance Law for Minors
In Washington, it is illegal for a driver under 21 to buy, drink, possess or transport alcohol, according to NOLO. A young offender can lose their driver's license for six months to a year for doing so. Minors who do not yet have a license can see their driving privileges pushed back by six months to a year, and parents and other legal guardians are not off the hook when a minor faces an impairment charge. If law enforcement finds that they aided an underage driver in obtaining alcohol, they, too, face penalties, including a $300 fine and a 90-day license revocation.
A young driver with any amount of alcohol in their system detected by chemical testing qualifies them for sentencing in addition to the penalties for standard DWI. If the driver has lied or used a false ID or driver's license to get alcohol, they can face criminal prosecution, a fine of between $300 and $1,000 and license suspension for 90 days to one year. For consuming alcohol, minor drivers also face a $300 to $1,000 civil fine and license suspension for 90 days to one year.
CDL Drivers and Impairment Charges
A DUI charge for a commercial driver's license (CDL) holder spells disaster in that it can have a profound impact on their ability to work, in addition to the penalties associated with the crime, even for first-time offenders. With a BAC legal limit for commercial license holders of only 0.04 percent, these drivers are subject to lower impairment limits than the general public when it comes to driving under the influence of alcohol.
While the penalties for DUI and DWI offenses are the same as those with a standard license, CDL drivers convicted of their first offense face a mandatory withdrawal of their license for one year. This keeps them from working at a job that requires a CDL for that year. Additionally, if a driver desires to obtain a commercial license, the law doesn't allow them to apply for one within that time. Second and subsequent offenses carry the possibility of a lifetime withdrawal of a CDL.
Open Container Law and Penalties
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Washington D.C. law prohibits containers of alcohol that are open, unsealed or partially empty in a vehicle on a public roadway. This applies to both drivers and passengers in areas accessed by the public, such as streets, alleys, parks and parking lots. The open container law applies to any solid or liquid with a minimum of 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. This violation is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum $500 fine and 60 days of jail time.
The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration has announced the relaxation of open container rules in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Drivers can now transport beer, wine and spirits as long as they're adequately sealed and out of the driver's reach. When transporting alcohol, the law also requires that prepared food made by a restaurant is part of the order.
Implied Consent Law and Penalties
The Code of the District of Columbia Section 50–1905 states that a person operating a motor vehicle automatically consents to chemical testing when they get behind the wheel. Law enforcement can ask a driver for a blood, urine or breath sample if they suspect impairment, and if that person refuses to take the test, they face a license suspension of up to a year.
Scrofano Law notes that the arresting officer will give the driver a Notice of Proposed Suspension when test refusal occurs. After receiving the notice, the driver has the option of scheduling an implied consent hearing no later than the notice deadline. In court, the prosecution can use a driver's refusal against them in a DUI trial and if they have prior convictions, a refusal may create a presumption of guilt.
DUI and Reckless Driving
A "wet reckless" occurs when a driver seeks a lesser charge of reckless driving through a plea bargain. According to NOLO, the district defines reckless driving as driving that puts lives and property in harm's way. Prosecutors will sometimes offer a wet reckless if there is a lack of evidence for a drunk driving charge or other mitigating factors. These include:
- The impaired driving offense is the driver's first.
- The driver has a clean criminal record.
- The driver has a low BAC level.
If a prosecutor has issues with evidence while trying to prove an impairment case, they may offer the accused a wet reckless instead of risking the loss of the case. Conversely, aggravating factors in an impairment case can diminish a driver's chances of a lesser sentence, particularly in the case of an accident with injuries or the existence of prior offenses.
- NOLO: Reducing a DUI/DWI Charge to a "Wet Reckless"
- WTOP News: DUI Deaths, Injuries Down in DC Area, but Drunken-driving Crashes, Arrests Up
- DC Metropolitan Police Department: Drunk Driving Prevention
- DC Metropolitan Police Department: Penalties for Drinking and Driving
- Scrofano Law: DC DUI _ Traffic Law FAQs
- National Conference of State Legislatures: Open Container and Consumption Statutes
- Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration: ABC-Licensed Beer, Wine and Spirits Carry-Out and Delivery FAQ
- Scrofano Law: What Are the Laws for DC DUI Repeat Offenders?
- NOLO: Washington D.C.’s Underage DUI/DWI Laws and Penalties
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.