What Is the Statute of Limitations for a DUI?

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Driving under the influence of alcohol, or DUI, is a crime taken increasingly seriously in many jurisdictions. In most states, prosecutors have only a limited amount of time to file charges against the driver. This time period, termed the statute of limitations, varies among the states, ranging from one year to five years or more.

Driving Under the Influence

The amount of alcohol a driver must drink to be convicted of driving under the influence depends on his physical size, the type of alcohol consumed and the state in which he is driving. If your blood alcohol is .08 percent or above, you can be convicted of a DUI in all states, but some states increase the penalty for higher levels. Often, the blood alcohol level for a driver is determined when a police officer stops him on suspicion of drunken driving and administers a breath test.

Limitations Period

A statute of limitations, or limitations period, is the window of time after which you cannot be charged with an offense. For DUI charges, the period begins running at the time of the offense. Unless some factor extends the limitations period, like the driver leaving the state, the prosecution can not charge him after the limitations period ends. The purpose of a limitations period is to prevent a driver from having to defend himself long after an event has occurred, when evidence is more difficult to locate and witnesses may no longer remember the events.

Felony or Misdemeanor Charge

In most states, DUIs can be charged as misdemeanors or felonies. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes and so carry lesser punishments than felony charges. Generally, a DUI offense is charged as a misdemeanor absent aggravating circumstances, specified in a state's statutes. Aggravating circumstances may include multiple DUI offenses, a higher blood alcohol level or the presence of a minor in the car. Felony DUIs often have longer limitations periods than misdemeanor DUI offenses.

State Limitations Periods All Over the Map

It is typical for states to permit charges to be filed for DUI misdemeanors for a year or more after the event, while felony DUI limitations periods can be twice as long or longer. In Illinois, for example, misdemeanor DUI charges must be filed within 18 months, while felony charges can be brought up to three years after a driver is stopped. In California, the base time periods are one year and three years. In Alaska, prosecutors have five years to file a charge for either a misdemeanor or a felony DUI.