Drinking and driving do not mix. Every state in the country makes driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI) a crime, and it is a serious criminal offense. This is by no means a case in which a driver must weigh the pros and cons to make a decision about whether a DUI is worth it. There are countless downsides, including getting a criminal record and loss of driving privileges. The only possible upside is learning from the experience.
Broad Sweep of DUI Laws
An individual can get arrested for a driving-under-the-influence crime in a variety of different ways, depending on the state. To really understand the potential downsides, it's important to realize that a DUI statute is a far bigger umbrella than it's portrayed. The real title in many states is "operating a motor vehicle under the influence," and the term motor vehicle can mean many things.
Typically, a driver thinks they risk a DUI charge when they are driving a car after consuming alcohol. But a DUI is by no means limited to a car. Depending on the state, it is possible to get a DUI while operating a truck; driving a motorcycle, scooter or even a bicycle; piloting a boat or a plane; and even tooling around in a ride-on lawn mower or a motorized wheelchair.
DUI Per Se Offenses
Just so, being under the influence isn't limited to being sloppy drunk with alcohol. All states now make it a crime to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher, determined by a breath test (with a breathalyzer) or a more invasive blood test. This is called a "per se" offense and no evidence of impairment is necessary.
In most states, a driver can be arrested for a DUI for being under the influence of drugs or controlled substances, and some states have per se DUI offenses with blood concentration limits for different drugs. It is also illegal for drivers under the age of 21 to drive with any alcohol at all in their system.
General Downsides of DUI Arrests
Everything about getting arrested for a DUI is unpleasant, if not awful. A driver is pulled over and must talk to law enforcement. They will be asked to perform a field sobriety test and, if drunk driving is suspected, to take a breath or chemical test. They will be arrested and taken to the police station for additional testing and booking. Their car may be impounded, and their driving license will be taken from them.
And that's just the preliminaries. Very quickly, the administrative sanctions kick in, followed by criminal penalties. Whether a misdemeanor or a felony, a DUI conviction is a serious matter that will give the driver a criminal record that, in many cases, will stay on their record forever.
In some states, a first-time offender can get the charge dismissed by undertaking a lengthy program of substance abuse education and sobriety that can last several years. Insurance costs will rise, and the driver may be required to pay to have an ignition interlock device (IID) installed on their vehicle which prevents it from starting until the driver blows into it and proves they are not under the influence of alcohol.
Administrative Punishments for DUIs
Many states have a two-pronged system for sanctioning DUI drivers. The first to kick in are the administrative sanctions, administrated by the Department of Motors Vehicles (DMV) or similar agency in the state.
In California, it is the DMV that automatically suspends the person's driver's license. If they refuse to take a breath or blood test, the automatic suspension for a first offense is one year. If the driver tests at above the legal BAC limit, the automatic suspension is six months, with an option to drive with an IID for four months.
For a second offender above the legal limit, the suspension time is two years or one year with an IID. A third offense results in an automatic three-year suspension or two years with an IID.
Criminal Penalties for a DUI
Administrative penalties kick in first, but if a driver is found guilty of a DUI or pleads guilty to the charge, criminal penalties apply. For a regular DUI, the amount of the fine and length of the jail sentence depends in large part on the driver's prior history. A first DUI offender will get less severe penalties than a second offender and so on.
In some states, a first offender will have to spend a minimum amount of time in jail, and, in most states, a second or subsequent offender will definitely go to jail. In California, for example, the minimum jail time for a second offender is 96 hours and 120 days for a third offender. This is one of the big "cons" to getting a DUI. Jail is not fun – it takes a person away from their family, their job and their pastimes.
Getting a DUI has financial consequences as well. Different states impose different fines, but all require some payment. California imposes a fine of between $390 and $1,000 for the first three DUIs. The driver also has to pay for substance abuse programs, as well as any IIDs they are required to install. They must install one in every car they own and in every car they regularly drive, paying an installation fee for each one along with a monthly maintenance fee.
An Expensive Lesson for Drunk Drivers
Again, there is no way one can balance the pros and cons of drugged or drunk driving. Everything about getting a DUI is a negative, and the only possible positive would be managing to learn a lesson from it. That is, the only possible good outcome resulting from a DUI is if a driver develops a clear and pressing resolve to never drink and drive again.
This could result from time spent in jail, driver's license suspension, or the huge hike in their insurance costs, or even losing their job because of the DUI. It could also be the positive result of substance abuse treatment. In any case, getting convicted of a DUI is an expensive lesson.
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.