Drunk Driving Law

Understanding drunk driving law when you're facing your first DUI conviction can make it easier to avoid substantial penalties. Drunk driving laws vary by state; however, by taking a look at general overviews across the country and consulting with a local DUI lawyer you can get a better idea of what to expect after a drunk driving conviction and how to avoid more in the future.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 15, 2022

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  • After a drunk driving accident, you may face several potential legal penalties, including fines, loss of license, and jail time
  • You may have the option to use several defense attorneys for a potential drunk driving conviction
  • A provisional license will reinstate your right to drive at least part of the time after a DUI conviction, especially a first-time conviction

After a drunk driving accident, you may have a lot of questions about your legal rights. What happens after your first DUI? What DUI punishments might you face? How does drunk driving law work, and how does it vary from state to state?

Working with an experienced drunk driving lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and, in many cases, provide a better defense that can protect your license and your finances following a drunk driving accident. Keep reading to learn how to hire a drunk driving attorney and how to build your DUI defense.

Get in touch with an affordable drunk driving law attorney today with our free legal tool. Enter your ZIP code above to find drunk driving law firms near you.

What are the penalties for drunk driving?

Driving while intoxicated, also known as driving under the influence, is illegal across the United States and carries a number of potential penalties that may go far beyond the immediate legal penalties associated with your conviction.

When did drunk driving become illegal in all 50 states? In 1938, after the American Medical Association and National Safety Council worked to establish a legal blood-alcohol content level of .15%, which was later dropped to .10% in the 1980s, and again to .08% in the 1990s.

Today, DUI laws define certain penalties and punishments for drunk driving cases that vary based on the number of offenses and the severity of the charge. In addition to penalties assigned by the court, you may face a range of personal and financial challenges.

The drunk driving penalties you face may vary by state and by the number of drunk driving convictions you have received in the past.

You may also face varying civil penalties depending on what type of job you want or hold. For example, a truck driver may have more trouble retaining employment after a DUI conviction than someone who works in a factory and does not have to drive as part of daily job responsibilities.

What are the possible punishments for drunk driving? In general, you can expect drunk driving penalties to include legal penalties, which are directly imposed by the court based on the details of your case and your driving record.

These penalties are legal punishments often based on specific statutes and may include minimum requirements that you will face even if you manage to negotiate consequences with the prosecutor.

Here is a list of drunk driving penalties you may face in your state:

Jail Time

The length of time you may spend in jail may vary depending on whether it’s your first drunk driving offense, how high your BAC was at the time, and whether you caused any injuries in a drunk driving accident.

In some states, you may face a minimum jail time of 48-72 hours following a drunk driving conviction. In Tennessee, a first-time drunk driving conviction can leave you in jail for up to 11 months and 29 days, just shy of a year.

Fines and Fees

In most states, drunk driving convictions carry heavy fines, which can vary from $100 for a first-time offense to up to $5,000 or more. In addition, if you cause an accident as a drunk driver, especially one that results in serious injury to the other party, you may face punitive damages or damages awarded to the injured party. Those fines can cause serious financial hardship, especially if you have other financial obligations.

As you face additional DUIs, you may also see increasing fines and fees. Driving without a license or on a suspended license can also leave you facing larger fines

License Suspension and Revocation

Some states have stringent license suspension requirements any time you are convicted of driving while intoxicated. In some states, including California, minimum driver’s license suspension after a DUI conviction starts at just 30 days. Some states also have provisions that determine how long you may lose your license based on your BAC at the time of testing.

In other states, drivers may face much more severe penalties. In Ohio, for example, you may have your license suspended for up to three years. In some states, the severity of the crime is based on your record as a driver. In Georgia for example, James Murphy of Murphy Lawyers explains, “If it is your first DUI conviction, the maximum suspension period is 12 months. However, those who complete DUI school and pay a fee are eligible for early reinstatement.”

License suspension can impact you in many areas of your life. You may find yourself struggling to get yourself to and from work or to deal with normal daily activities, especially if you live in an area that does not offer adequate public transportation. You may also have trouble transporting your children, handling errands, or just getting out for social activities. The more DUI offenses you commit, the longer you may lose your license.

Is there any way to get my license back sooner if I am convicted of driving under the influence?

Losing your license is often one of the harshest penalties associated with a DUI, especially if you live in an area where you have little or no access to public transportation. Your DUI attorney is your first line of defense in protecting your license.

If your attorney can prevent the conviction in the first place, you can keep your license and not have to worry about those impacts.

After you face a DUI conviction, you may have another option: a limited license that will allow you to drive under specific circumstances. You may petition the court to allow a provisional or limited license while the license suspension from your DUI goes on.

Provisional licenses may restrict:

  • Where you can drive, including what streets you can take
  • Under what circumstances you can drive (for example, you may only be able to drive to and from work or to handle the transportation of minor children to school)
  • When you can drive, including specific restrictions on the hours when you can be behind the wheel

If you ignore the provisions of your restricted license, you may lose the right to drive at all–so following those rules can prove critical to keeping your provisional license and your right to drive.

In order to receive a provisional license, you may need to install a breathalyzer device on your vehicle. These devices will require you to provide a breath sample before you start the car. If you have any alcohol in your blood, the car will not start. Some breathalyzers may also require you to periodically issue additional readings while driving.

If an installation is required as part of your provisional license requirements, you will be responsible for paying for and installing these devices into any vehicle you drive regularly.

Insurance Increases

Will car insurance rates increase after a DUI? Yes.

Once you have been convicted of drunk driving, you may see a sharp increase in your insurance rates. In states with relatively low insurance hikes for drunk driving convictions, you may face as much as a 45% increase in your insurance rates. In states like North Carolina, rates may go up as much as 371% for one drunk driving conviction.

Your insurance carrier may also choose to discontinue your coverage, especially if you caused a serious accident with a great deal of damage or you have received more than one drunk driving conviction.

Job Loss

In some fields, especially those that require you to drive regularly, you may have a hard time maintaining your job after receiving a drunk driving conviction. You may, for example, not be able to keep a job as a delivery driver if you lose your license. Other industries may also refuse to employ drivers who have received drunk driving convictions, even if driving is a relatively small part of your overall daily responsibilities.

In the aftermath of a DUI conviction, you may have a hard time keeping a job that requires you to work with children. In addition, some educational institutions, including colleges and universities, may conduct a background check in order to determine whether they want to admit you. With a DUI conviction in your past, you may have a hard time getting accepted to one of those facilities, and they might not always tell you why your application was turned down.

Avoiding a DUI conviction is your best chance at avoiding those penalties.

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What defense can I use against a DUI charge?

DUI charges can prove incredibly difficult to defend, especially if you attempt to handle the defense on your own without an attorney to help you.

What defenses are there in a drunk driving case? An attorney may issue several potential defenses that can help you lower the impact of your drunk driving conviction or prevent you from facing criminal penalties, including:

#1 – You Were Not Driving the Vehicle

In order to receive a DUI conviction, the arresting officer must show that you were driving or in control of a vehicle. Some DUI defenses have successfully made the argument that you do not bear liability for driving while intoxicated if you did not drive the vehicle in question or have any intent to do so.

In some cases, you can be charged with a DUI for simply being in the vehicle and in command of the keys while intoxicated, with or without the vehicle being turned on. Check your drunk driving laws by state and consult with a local DUI lawyer to confirm your next best steps forward.

#2 – Sobriety Testing was Inaccurate

Breathalyzers are not always as accurate as you might like, especially under extenuating circumstances, including body temperature and even excessively high blood sugar. A single breathalyzer test alone cannot always accurately determine the extent of the driver’s alcohol consumption.

In some cases, officers may fail to consider those extenuating factors or to collect additional evidence that may show that the driver was drinking and driving.

#3 – You Did Not Have the Chance to Call a Lawyer

During the DUI investigation, you should have the opportunity to contact a lawyer, who can negotiate on your behalf or fight to ensure that your rights are recognized. If the police prevented you from calling a lawyer during your investigation, it could invalidate the collection of evidence and make it easier for you to avoid a drunk driving conviction.

#4 – The Officers Used Inaccurate or Inefficient Field Sobriety Testing

Testing for sobriety in the field is a complex process. Most officers are trained in recognizing potential drunk drivers and the behaviors those drivers may exhibit. However, some officers will use inaccurate or misleading symptoms to inform their field sobriety measurements.

You may, for example, have the right to argue that a field sobriety test was conducted improperly if you have a secondary condition that could interfere with the test results: for example, if you have poor balance and coordination, standing on one leg could prove impossible.

A field sobriety test alone also cannot be used to establish drunken behavior, since many other conditions can mimic the effects of intoxication. For example, some drivers may show symptoms that mimic drunkenness after suffering a traumatic brain injury. Other symptoms, like extremely high blood sugar, can also cause drivers to show symptoms of drunkenness despite not having consumed alcohol.

#5 – The Officer Cannot Give a Legal Reason for Stopping the Vehicle

To legally stop a driver and issue a BAC test, the officer must be able to clearly articulate the reason why he stopped the vehicle. Officers cannot just randomly pull over a driver and insist that they take a field sobriety test or breathalyzer.

If the driver had not shown any evidence of drunkenness, including swerving or driving recklessly, driving extremely cautiously, or ignoring the rules of the road, the driver might have had no reason to stop the driver.

Officers can put up traffic stops that automatically stop drivers passing through them, however. Many areas use these traffic stops around major holidays known for heavy drinking behavior in an effort to cut down on overall drunk driving during those times, but officers must abide by the requirements for DUI checkpoints per state law.

#6 – You Did Not Realize Your Impairment

In some cases, you might end up with a drunk driving conviction even though you did not realize that you were impaired. For example, you might have consumed a spiked drink at a party and not realized that it had impacted you until later.

If you knowingly consumed alcohol and showed any effects of inebriation, you may have a hard time using this defense; however, talk to your lawyer if you believe that you should not have received a drunk driving conviction because you genuinely did not know the beverage you consumed had any alcohol content.

#7 – You Drove Under Duress

Someone forced you to get behind the wheel while drunk, and you believe that individual or entity, not you, should face the consequences of those actions.

In some cases, for example, you may have been forced behind the wheel by an employer before you had a chance to sober up, with the threat of job loss hanging over your head. You might also have gotten behind the wheel under the threat of physical violence or other substantial consequences from someone else around you.

#8 – You Drove Out Of Necessity

You may argue that you chose to drive while intoxicated to prevent a greater evil. Most often, you might have chosen to drink and drive in order to take someone to the hospital and prevent serious medical consequences, especially in an area with little to no ambulance service. Talk to your attorney about whether this specific defense might apply to your claim.

#9 – The Chain of Evidence Regarding a Blood Test was Not Maintained

In order to protect the chain of evidence associated with a blood alcohol test, the police department must follow specific steps to ensure that the chain of evidence is not broken and that the blood test is uncompromised. If there is any chance that the test was compromised in any way, you may have the right to use that as evidence against the DUI claim.

Can I avoid a DUI charge by refusing to take a breathalyzer or blood test?

Often, the evidence for a DUI conviction comes from a breathalyzer or blood test. Many people feel that by refusing a DUI breathalyzer test, they can argue that they were not drunk and therefore do not deserve a DUI conviction.

In many states, however, refusal of any field sobriety test at the scene of the accident can lead to you being found automatically guilty for driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated.

Many states have implied consent laws: that is, by using state roads and driving, which is considered a privilege not a right, you consent to having your BAC levels tested if needed. If you refuse to take those tests, you may face the same penalties that you would from a DUI conviction, including license loss, fines and penalties, and even jail time.

If you get pulled over by an officer who wants you to take a sobriety test, comply according to state and local recommendations. Refusing to take that test will not save you from a DUI conviction and may in fact lead to further penalties.

If you know that you have not been drinking, you may have little to fear from a breathalyzer or blood test. Keep in mind that you do not have to agree to a search of your vehicle.

When should I hire a drunk driving law attorney?

If you’re facing a DUI conviction, the court may assign you a public defender. However, hiring a private attorney to defend you can minimize the penalties you face.

What is the difference between a public defender and a private attorney? While the court assigns you a public defender, these attorneys are often underpaid and overworked. They are also frequently attorneys with relatively little experience, which means they may not be as familiar with the drunk driving law history and how it may impact your case.

Your DUI case may require extensive investigation or a great deal of time dealing with the prosecuting attorney. You do not want to feel as though you are at the bottom of your attorney’s priority list, especially if you face severe consequences related to your DUI. When you hire your own attorney, you’re getting a drunk driving law expert that will focus on your case.

With a public defender, the court assigns the attorney who will ultimately handle your case. You will be seeking advice and sharing highly personal information with this attorney. If you aren’t comfortable with your public defender, hiring your own drunk driving lawyer gives you the chance to pick an attorney you’re comfortable working with to handle your case.

Hiring a DUI attorney sounds like an expensive proposition. You may worry that you cannot afford to hire an attorney or assume that using a public defender will save you a lot of money. However, by hiring a private DUI attorney, you can often limit the impact on your driving record, the fines and penalties you have to pay, and the extent of the impact on your insurance.

If you do not get convicted of a DUI, you will not face serious insurance consequences, and you may even avoid losing your job. Hiring a DUI attorney may offer you the best chances of decreasing those penalties.

A DUI conviction can have an immense impact on every area of your life. Not only can it lead to significant financial distress, but it may also prevent you from pursuing the education you intended or even stop you from pursuing employment at all in some fields.

An experienced DUI attorney can help you avoid and/or minimize many of those penalties, making it easier for you to move forward with your life after the mistakes that led to your conviction. Enter your ZIP code into our free legal too below to find a DUI attorney near you.

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