What are the possible punishments for drunk driving?

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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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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Because drunk driving is a state-level (not federal or national) offense, the penalties for drunk driving vary by state. That said, the following is generally what you could face for a first DUI: (1) license suspension; (2) fines—which may exceed $1,000; (3) mandatory counseling; (4) use of an interlock device for a period of time after you can drive again (not universal, but fairly common); (5) jail time (uncommon for a first offense, but possible). Remember, all that is for the first offense. The punishments get worse with every subsequent offense, and include longer suspensions, larger fines, certain (and longer) jail time, possible permanent loss of license, and possible seizure of your car. Again, however, exact penalties for a drunk driving offense will vary from state to state, and you should look up the specific laws in the state where you were charged.

If you are an adult, age 21 or over, and you have been arrested for drunk driving, this generally means that law enforcement determined that your blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.08 or higher while you were operating a motor vehicle. While penalties for drunk driving vary by state, all states have adopted 0.08 as the standard to impose charges for driving while intoxicated (DWI), driving under the influence (DUI) or operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (OUI).

Punishments for First DUI Offense

For a first DUI offense, you will always have your license suspended. However, some states will allow you to request a hearing with the DMV after your arrest to avoid automatic license suspension. This usually must be done within a week or two of the arrest, and once a hearing date is set, you can avoid having your license suspended if and until you lose the hearing. There are also always fines imposed for a DUI offense, and sometimes there will be mandatory jail time or community service.

States almost always require that an offender attend DUI school and/or a mandated alcoholic treatment program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). This process will usually require the offender to meet with a professional counselor for an assessment interview to determine the right educational path. The program must be completed before your drivers license can be reinstated. Sometimes the counselor may require that you attend meetings in which victims of drunk drivers will speak about their experiences. The idea behind this is to personalize the consequences of drunk driving, so that the individual will be less likely to drive drunk again.

Some states also require that you put an ignition interlock device on your car. This means that you will have to blow into the interlock device to ensure that you are under 0.08 BAC. If the interlock device determines that your BAC is 0.08 or above, your car will not start.

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Penalties for Multiple DUI Offenses

Punishments for multiple DUI offenses are often mandated under “habitual violator” laws, which many states have now implemented. Even in states that have not adopted the habitual violator status, punishments for multiple DUI’s can be just as harsh. A multiple offender may lose their license for months, years, or in some cases, for good. Your car may also be impounded and you will likely receive mandatory jail time as well.

States vary in the mandatory jail time given for multiple offenses. The sentence can be anywhere from days to weeks and will increase depending on the number of times you have been convicted of a DUI or if there is an aggravating factor. In all states, a professional counselor will almost always require you to go to mandatory AA meetings. Depending on how severe they think your problem with alcohol is, this could mean a residential treatment program. Further, repeat offenders may also lose their civil rights, such as the right to own a weapon or the right to vote.

Aggravating Factors in DUI Cases

There are numerous factors that will cause DUI fines and penalties to increase. These include having an expired or revoked drivers license, expired insurance, being on probation, having an open container in your vehicle at the time of your arrest, having children in the vehicle at the time of your arrest, speeding, having a BAC two times above the legal limit or more (0.16), and refusing to submit to a breath test.

If you are charged with drunk driving and have any number of these aggravating factors, you may receive additional fines, jail time or both. If you cause an accident while driving drunk or injure someone in an accident, the penalties are even more severe. In many states this type of DUI is classified as a felony. If there is a death in the DUI accident, the drunk driver could even be charged with vehicular manslaughter or murder.

Getting Help

If you have been charged with DUI, you should contact a DUI attorney right away. A DUI attorney can help you understand the charges against you, inform you of your options, and argue your case in court. 

Related Articles:
First DUI: What You Should Know
The Advantages of Hiring a Drunk Driving Attorney

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