In many ways, all state laws regarding driving under the influence (DUI) are similar. All make it illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. All make it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent, although a few states set the legal level even lower. And, all impose penalties for violation of these laws.
But not all states set equally strong penalties, and Colorado's laws are not as strict as many. It takes four DUIs before the state charges the driver with a felony. In fact, according to a report in Drunk Driving Accidents, Colorado ranks close to last when it comes to states with tough punishments for DUIs. Anyone who drives in Colorado will want to get an overview of the DUI laws and the penalties they may face for violating them.
Colorado DUI Laws/Impairment
The Colorado statute that makes it illegal to drink or use drugs and drive is found in Colorado Revised Statutes Section 42-4-1301. The law sets out several ways a person can come under the scope of the DUI laws. One way is by actual impairment.
The law defines driving under the influence as driving while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs to such an extent that the driver is substantially incapable of operating a vehicle safely. This can be due to diminished ability to exercise clear judgment, physically control the vehicle or use due care while driving.
Alcohol-Based "DUI Per Se"
Like other states, Colorado law sets out a "per se" DUI for alcohol, based on the results of chemical testing or a breath test. The DUI per se sets the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at 0.08 percent. Anyone testing at 0.08 percent or above is presumed to be under the influence of alcohol, and no further evidence is required at trial to convict them of driving with ability impaired.
Sanctions for a per se DUI offense in Colorado are the same as for impairment DUIs. Think of the DUI per se provision as providing an alternative basis for establishing a DUI in Colorado, not as a separate DUI offense.
Drug-Based DUI Laws
While most people think of a DUI as referring to drunk driving, it can also be a DUI under CRS Section 42-4-1301 when a person drives while using drugs or medications. This includes both illegal drugs, like heroin, prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and marijuana. The test is whether the individual's ability to drive is impaired by the use of these drugs.
In Colorado, there is no legal limit for most drugs. However, there is a per se DUI for marijuana. Under the statutes, if a chemical test or blood test shows that a driver's blood contains 5 nanograms or more of delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per milliliter, there is an inference that the individual drove under the influence of drugs.
DWAIs in the State of Colorado
If a driver tests at less than the legal BAC limit for alcohol, they can still be charged and convicted of driving while ability impaired, or DWAI. This is also a crime in Colorado, although a less serious driving offense than a DUI that carries less serious criminal consequences. In order to convict an individual of this crime, the prosecutor must show that the driver used alcohol and/or drugs and that, due to that use, they were affected to some degree and thus less able to exercise clear judgment, sufficient physical control, or due care in the safe operation of a vehicle.
Most DWAI cases are charged when a driver's BAC is at least 0.05 percent, but less than the legal limit of 0.08 percent. However, this 0.05 percent is not a legal requirement. If the prosecutor can establish by any other evidence that an individual's driving ability was diminished by use of substances, they can receive a DWAI conviction.
Administrative Penalties for a Colorado DUI
The state of Colorado imposes both administrative and criminal sanctions for DUI law violations. Administrative penalties are imposed by the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and involve loss of driving privileges. These are imposed when a driver refuses to take a chemical test after arrest for a DUI or when they take, and fail, a chemical test.
Colorado’s "expressed consent” law provides that a motorist in the state must submit to chemical testing – breath, blood, saliva and/or urine testing – if the law enforcement officer has reasonable cause to believe that the driver is driving while under the influence. Failure to do so is illegal and will result in a one-year license revocation for a first-time DUI. A second offense results in a two-year license revocation, while a third offense results in three years of license revocation.
Administrative sanctions also apply when a person submits to a test and fails it, for example their BAC test shows 0.08 percent or above. Again, the period of license revocation depends on whether it is the first, second or third offense. A first offense results in a license revocation of nine months; second offenses carry a revocation period of one year; and third offenses carry three years of revocation.
Criminal Sanctions for Colorado DUI
The criminal penalties for a DUI in Colorado depend on the driver's prior record. First offenders are given the least serious sanctions, while each additional DUI increases the length of potential jail time, as well as the amount of fines and the number of mandated hours of community service. First, second and third DUIs in Colorado are misdemeanors, the less serious type of crime that carries a maximum jail time of one year. Fourth offenses are felonies, the more serious type of crime for which the incarceration period is not limited.
For a first offense in Colorado, a driver can expect to spend between five days and a year in jail and pay between $600 and $1,000 in fines to the court. In addition, the person's driver's license will be suspended for nine months, they will incur 12 DMV demerit points, and be ordered to perform between 38 and 96 hours of community service. Sometimes the court will require the driver to attend treatment programs or substance abuse classes.
Penalties for a Second DUI Offense
What is different in the punishment if the driver has a prior DUI? The DUI is treated as a second offense, and potential jail time increases to between 10 days and a year. Criminal fines range from $600 to $1,500, and a public service requirement can go up to 120 hours.
The person's license is revoked for a year and, after that, they must install ignition interlock devices (IID) in every vehicle they drive. This device is like a breathalyzer attached to the car, and the engine will not start until the driver blows into the IID and proves that there is no alcohol on their breath. Again, the court may also impose a substance abuse class requirement.
Penalties for Third and Fourth DUI Offenses
A third-time offender faces between 60 days and a year in jail and fines up to $1,500. The license suspension is for two years. The rest of the possible sanctions (IID, DMV points and alcohol abuse classes) remain the same.
After three prior DUIs, a driver arrested again for a similar offense will be charged with a felony. They can be sentenced to Colorado state prison for a period of two to six years with three years of parole. They may also be fined between $2,000 and $500,000.
Criminal Sanctions for Colorado DWAI
Keep in mind that DWAIs are lesser offenses than DUIs and carry less severe punishment. The first three violations are misdemeanors, but, like DUIs, sanctions increase with repeat violations. The fourth violation is a felony.
A first offense DWAI in Colorado can result in a jail sentence of between two and 180 days and fines of between $200 and $500. First-time offenders can also be required to do 24 to 48 hours of community service. In terms of DMV points, a DWAI brings the driver eight points.
A driver who gets a DWAI and who already has one on their driving record can get a little more jail time and considerably more in fines. Second-time DWAI drivers can be sentenced to between 10 days and one year in jail, fines of up to $1,500, and between 48 and 120 hours of public service. This offense also carries eight DMV points. When a driver is facing their third DWAI, the potential jail time increases to between 60 days and one year. All other sanctions remain the same as for a second-time offender.
All subsequent DWAIs are charged as class felonies. The driver can get up to six years in jail and a fine of between $2,000 and $500,000.
Penalties for Other DUI Crimes
If a driver leaves a bar, gets pulled over in a traffic stop and is arrested for a DUI, the penalties set out above apply. These are "simple" DUIs, but other drunk drivers are in worse circumstances. Some are arrested only after they get into an accident or hit a pedestrian or bicyclist. This can result in other felony charges.
When a DUI driver causes serious injury to another individual as a direct result of impaired driving, they can be charged with vehicular assault. Even if this is the first DUI the driver has had, it is charged as a Class 4 felony, just like a fourth DUI would be. The penalties are the same as for a fourth DUI, and include two to six years in prison with three years of parole. Fines for this offense can range all the way up to $500,000.
Penalties for Vehicular Homicide
But even a driver charged with vehicular assault isn't in the worst DUI situation. The most severe DUI punishment in Colorado is reserved for a DUI driver who commits vehicular homicide.
This happens when a drunk or drugged driver hits a vehicle or a pedestrian, resulting in the death of another individual. This is a Class 3 felony, more serious than the Class 4 felony for vehicular assault. Punishment can be up to 12 years in prison with five years of parole. Fines can run up to $750,000.
Drivers Under 21 Years Old
Drivers under the age of 21 in Colorado are not permitted to buy alcohol. That's why the state imposes "zero tolerance" laws that apply to young drivers who drink. Any driver under the age of 21 can be charged under the state's DUI and DWAI laws, but, in addition, they also can be charged with a violation of the underage drunk driving law (UDD) if they have a BAC of 0.02 percent or higher.
Young drivers convicted of a regular DUI or DWAI are subject to the regular penalties. But UDD is a Class A traffic infraction, not a criminal offense, the first time around. It is punished by a fine of up to $150, mandated 24 hours of community service, a three-month license suspension and four DMV points.
Sometimes a judge requires completion of an alcohol education program, as well. No jail time is imposed for a first violation, but repeat violations are Colorado misdemeanors, that is, criminal offenses.
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.