Drunk driving is a serious crime that can affect otherwise law-abiding citizens anytime they get behind the wheel. It’s also a crime that can have deep-reaching financial consequences.
The Department of Transportation states that about four million adults reported having driven drunk at least once in 2010. Meanwhile, the FBI reports that drunk driving accounts for more than one million arrests or criminal charges each year, and is the third-most commonly charged crime in the United States after theft and drug-related offenses.
For those charged with or facing prosecution for a drunk driving offense, it’s essential to understand how being convicted of this crime can affect your finances. While drunk driving may seem like a minor criminal charge, it can have life-altering consequences – even if you’re not convicted.
As with any discussion of legal topics, it’s important to approach a discussion of drunk driving with a healthy dose of caution. Nothing you ever read on the Internet or anywhere else can substitute for the personalized guidance an attorney can provide. And, because every situation is unique and because state laws about drunk driving differ significantly, you can only be sure of the legal realities facing you by speaking to an experienced lawyer.
Every state has made it a criminal offense for people to operate motor vehicles while under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicating substances. The acronym DUI stands for “driving under the influence,” while DWI stands for “driving while intoxicated” or “driving while impaired,” and OUI stands for “operating under the influence.”
While there are some legal differences in how states define, treat, and categorize these similar offenses, they all basically boil down to the idea that you cannot operate any vehicle while drunk or otherwise under the influence of an intoxicant.
Types of Drunk Driving
Regardless of the terminology your state utilizes, there are almost certainly several ways you can be convicted of driving under the influence. Laws provide multiple methods for the state to prove that a driver is intoxicated. While state laws differ, there are some principles that generally apply regardless of where you live.
Driving While Impaired, or DWI
In general, driving while intoxicated or impaired (DWI) cases are built upon police officer observations of a driver’s behavior. If an officer can provide testimony to show the driver was operating the vehicle while impaired, the driver can be convicted of a DWI.
It’s common in DWI cases for officers to testify that they observed behaviors indicative of intoxication. For example, an officer might testify to observing that the driver was swerving in and out of road lanes, was slow to react to traffic lights or other drivers, or, upon speaking to the driver, that the officer smelled alcohol, observed bloodshot eyes, or heard the driver slurring words.
Furthermore, police officers commonly ask drivers to perform field sobriety tests (FSTs) to determine whether they are intoxicated. These FSTs can involve tests of balance, memory, and eye movement, as well as preliminary breathalyzer tests, or PBTs. (Note that PBTs are different from the breathalyzer tests states typically require drivers to take, which are performed at a police station or similar facility.) Once tested, the officer’s testimony as to how the driver performed under these tests can be used as evidence against the driver.
Driving Under the Influence, or “Per Se” DUI
Beyond the observations officers make of drivers, drunk driving cases can also be based on tests designed to determine how much alcohol drivers have in their system. This is often referred to as driving under the influence, and is probably the most common scenario in which someone is arrested for and convicted of drunk driving.
It is also known as “per se” DUI, or “legal limit” DUI because it has nothing to do with an officer’s evaluation of whether the accused is displaying any traits of intoxication. Rather, per se DUI involves law enforcement officers testing a driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC). If the driver’s BAC is above a specific threshold, typically 0.08%, the state does not have to show any additional evidence to convict the defendant of a drunk driving crime.
Even if your blood alcohol content is lower than the legal limit, you can still be convicted of drunk driving under the traditional DWI observation methods. In other words, you are not safe from being charged with or convicted of a DUI just because your blood alcohol content is below the per se limit.
Under 21 Per Se DUI
Because people under the age of 21 are not legally entitled to drink, they face stricter scrutiny when it comes to drunk driving laws. The per se threshold in all states for drivers under the legal drinking age is much lower than the threshold for those of legal drinking age. Though the specific BAC concentrations differ, most states impose somewhere between a 0.00% to 0.02% BAC threshold for drivers under 21.
Commercial Per Se DUI
As with drivers under the age of 21, professional or commercial drivers are held to a stricter standard under state drunk driving laws. Most states have laws that impose a 0.04% BAC threshold to drivers operating a commercial vehicle. Furthermore, commercial drivers can face a suspension of their commercial driver’s license if they’re convicted of a DUI when operating a noncommercial vehicle.
Aggravated Per Se DUI
The majority of states have adopted drunk driving laws that impose harsher penalties against drivers who have a high BAC, such as increased jail time, longer license suspensions, or higher fines. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), the BAC level that brings higher penalties differs from state to state, but ranges between 0.15% and 0.25%.
Similar to drunk driving is drugged driving, or operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs other than alcohol. According to the GHSA, many (though not all) states have laws that make it illegal to drive under the influence of any other intoxicant, such as recreational or prescription drugs.
Some states impose specific amounts of different drugs that can be in a person’s system, while other states have adopted so-called “zero tolerance” laws that make it a crime to operate a vehicle with any presence of prohibited drugs in a driver’s system. For example, anyone in Michigan found with any presence of any controlled substances in their system, such as marijuana or cocaine, can be charged with a DUI.
Penalties, Costs & Consequences
The total cost of a DUI differs wildly from case to case. Even DUI cases in the same state can involve significantly different costs depending on the circumstances and facts. Yet regardless of those differences, the costs surrounding a DUI can go well beyond attorney’s fees, criminal fines, or lost wages.
Like any crime, a DUI conviction can involve a range of potential criminal punishments. The specific penalties a court imposes for any criminal conviction depends on the circumstances of each situation, such as the laws of the state in which you’re charged, whether you’ve had prior DUI convictions, or whether aggravating factors are present.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state criminalizes DUI offenses, allowing courts to impose jail, fines, or other criminal penalties as sentences for those convicted. Most state laws allow for both misdemeanor and felony charges in drunk driving cases depending on the circumstances. For example, DUI in Arizona is a Class 1 misdemeanor offense. However, if certain factors are present, such as driving with a suspended license or with a passenger under the age of 15 in the car, it is considered a felony DUI.
In general, penalties for felonies are more significant than those for misdemeanors. Misdemeanors carry the possibility of up to one year in jail, while felonies can involve multi-year prison sentences. Similarly, fines, probation time, and other penalties are typically higher for felony offenses than for misdemeanors.
- Fines. Criminal fines for DUI can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousands of dollars.
- Jail or Prison. A sentence that includes incarceration is possible in any DUI case, including first offenses. Some states, such as Arizona and Tennessee, require brief mandatory jail sentences of 24 to 48 hours for first-time offenders. California requires a minimum jail sentence of three days. While not all DUI sentences include incarceration penalties, those that do can require as little as one day in jail for first-time offenders, or as long as several years in a state prison for felony or repeat drunk driving offenders.
- Driving Restrictions. Anyone convicted or charged with a DUI faces restricted driving penalties. First-time offenders can have their licenses suspended for as little as 30 days, while suspensions of 90 days or more are common. Multiple or felony offenders can face multi-year suspensions or even permanent revocation of driving privileges.
- Vehicle Confiscation. Many states allow for temporary or even permanent seizures or confiscation of a DUI offender’s vehicle. For example, in Ohio you face possible vehicle forfeiture after a second DUI.
- Ignition Interlock Device. Every state has laws that allow (or require) the installation of an ignition interlock device for people convicted of drunk driving. Interlock devices test a driver’s BAC and prevent the car from starting if it is too high.
- Alcohol Assessment and Treatment. DUI sentences can require drivers to participate in alcohol assessment or treatment programs.
- Probation. Probation is a criminal sentence that allows the convicted person, called a probationer, to stay out of jail while under restricted liberties. Probation limits the freedoms of those convicted of a crime and requires them to comply with certain rules, such as regularly reporting to a probation officer, paying a probation fee, performing a specific number of community service hours, or participating in an alcohol treatment program. Probation sentences typically last one year or more, and failing to comply with the probation terms can result in extended probation sentences, additional fines, or jail time. Probation is typically an option in most DUI cases, though it may be imposed in addition to a jail sentence.
- Diversion or Deferred Prosecution. Deferred prosecution, also known as diversion, is similar to probation. If the state agrees to a diversion program, the accused is required to comply with a range of probation-like terms for a specific period of time, typically a year or more. If the person on diversion completes the sentence without violating any terms, the prosecutor’s office drops the DUI charges once the diversion period ends. The availability of diversion programs differs from state to state, and they are usually only available in limited circumstances. For example, deferred prosecution programs typically only allow people to participate if they are first-time DUI offenders or do not otherwise have a criminal history.
Civil Driving Restrictions
If you’re arrested for drunk driving, there is a good chance that your driver’s license will be suspended even if you’re never convicted of the crime. How long this restriction lasts differs from state to state, but is typically for at least 90 days, and possibly longer. This suspension of driving privileges is separate from any penalties that might come with a criminal conviction because of the difference in how the law treats criminal rights and driving rights.
There are strict legal standards that apply when the state accuses someone of a crime. In order to use its criminal punishment powers against an individual, the state has to provide enough evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the crime.
However, that reasonable doubt standard does not apply to the suspension of a driver’s license. The right to drive a car is not a liberty protected by the criminal procedure laws that apply when a state wants to put you in jail. In other words, the ability to drive a car on state roadways is more like a legal privilege, not a legal right. So, in order to revoke or suspend your driving privileges, the state only needs to show by a preponderance of the evidence that it is more likely than not that you violated the law.
Preponderance of the evidence is a civil standard of evidence, and is lower than the criminal standard of proving beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the state does not need as much evidence to suspend your driving privileges as it does when it tries to convict you of DUI.
In some situations, drivers who have had their licenses suspended can apply for a restricted or hardship license immediately following their suspension. Hardship license rules differ by state, but typically require you to show that operating your vehicle is necessary for employment, educational, or medical purposes.
The Criminal Case
Any criminal case can involve significant financial expenses. At the very least, being charged with drunk driving will most likely require you to attend several court appearances. At the other end of the spectrum, your case could go to trial, involve multiple witnesses or experts, and result in a sentence that includes jail time and significant fines. Your case could even involve one or more types of appeal.
If you’re charged with drunk driving, no matter what, you need a lawyer. But how much will it cost?
While there is no single answer to this question, you can expect to pay about $1,000 on the low end, to $20,000 or more on the high end to hire a criminal defense attorney to defend you through your drunk driving case. For example, the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning reports that attorney’s fees in a DUI case can range from $500 to $5,000, while the State of California reports that the average cost of an attorney, and any associated fines, is $4,000.
It’s also important to note that, because DUI cases are criminal matters, you are entitled to have an attorney represent you even if you cannot afford one. Even then, many states have rules that require you to pay for at least part of the public defender’s fees. For example, people who have a public defender in Missouri can expect to pay between $25 and $375 for a DUI case or appeal.
The Driving Suspension Case
The legal fees for hiring a criminal defense attorney are sometimes separate from the legal fees for having an attorney represent you in a civil driver’s license case (the case to suspend your license and driving privileges). While you have the right to an attorney to represent you in the criminal case, there is no such right in the civil driver’s license case. So, if you want an attorney to help you defend your driver’s license, you have to pay out of your own pocket – even if you are entitled to a public defender for the criminal case. While some attorneys might agree to represent you in both cases for a single fee, others will not, and the additional cost of the civil case can increase your attorney’s fees from several hundred to several thousands of dollars.
In addition to any criminal fines imposed by a court, DUI cases can involve numerous court costs and associated fees. The specific fees involved, and the amount they cost, differ between states and even between jurisdictions within each state, but they can be considerable.
For example, those charged with a DUI in Colorado can face multiple fees in addition to criminal fines. Here is a partial list:
- Car Storage or Impoundment Fees: Starting at $27
- Probation Supervision Fees: As much as $1,200
- Towing Fees: Average of $143
- Alcohol Evaluation: $200
- Ignition Interlock Device Installation and Rental: Up to about $1,500
- Community Service Supervision Fees: $80
- Victims Assistance Fund Fee: $78
- Victim Impact Panel Fee: $25
- Victim Compensation Fund Fee: $33
- Brain Injury Fund Fee: $15
- Law Enforcement Assistance Fund Fee: $90
- Alcohol Education or Treatment Class Fee: Up to $1,000
If you own a car and are convicted of a DUI, you can expect your car insurance rates to rise – possibly substantially. The amount you pay to your insurance company as a premium is based on a number of factors, such as your age, driving history, type of car you drive, and where you are located. Insurance companies look at these factors at least in part to determine how risky a driver you are, or how likely you are to be involved in an accident that will require the company to pay. When you’re convicted of a DUI your insurance company is likely to conclude that you are a greater risk as a driver, which increases your premium.
The actual rate of increase differs substantially from driver to driver, but someone convicted of a DUI can expect to pay much more than someone with a clean driving record. California, for example, estimates that the average increase in insurance premiums for a teen driver convicted of drunk driving can total $40,000 over the course of 13 years, or about $3,075 per year.
Lost Wages & Limited Employment Opportunities
If you get arrested or convicted of drunk driving there’s a chance you will spend at least some time in jail. If that jail time impedes your ability to work, you can lose income.
Furthermore, it’s often entirely legal for an employer to fire you, cut back your hours, demote you, or take other adverse actions because you missed work or were charged with a drunk driving crime. Even if your employer takes no actions against you and you don’t miss any work, having your license suspended may make it more difficult to get to work.
If you’re convicted of either a misdemeanor or felony drunk driving crime, your ability to find or maintain employment can be restricted in additional ways. For example, if you’re convicted of a crime, you may be ineligible to receive a gaming license or ineligible to work as a home health aid or assistant. And, if you are an attorney, you can be disbarred.
Each state, as well as the Federal Government, has many laws that limit the civil liberties of convicted criminals. For example, if you are convicted of a crime in Utah, you face up to 696 restrictions, according to the American Bar Association. These include being unable to apply for some state educational scholarships, to serve as a youth mentor (until your probation sentence is completed), and to be an emergency child care provider.
At the federal level, convicted criminals can lose their classified security clearances, be denied admission to the United States Merchant Marine Academy, and become ineligible to be an Indian country law enforcement officer.
Medical Expenses, Property Damage, and Wrongful Death
If your DUI involves property damage, injuries, or someone’s death, the costs can quickly go from significant to astronomical – and these are usually, but not always, charged as felony offenses. Beyond the higher penalties, fines, jail time, and attorney’s fees associated with felony offenses, there’s the chance that you may have to pay medical bills or restitution for any damage.
Even if you have car insurance, you could still face a lawsuit – especially if there was significant damage, long-term injuries, or death. The financial impact of a losing such a personal injury lawsuit can be long-lasting and financially disastrous.
One of the most common misconceptions about drunk driving is that you have to feel intoxicated or out of control as the result of alcohol in order to be convicted. It is common to hear convicted drivers claim that they weren’t drunk, buzzed, or in any way unable to operate a vehicle safely – even though they had been drinking. While this may be the case, it has nothing to do with whether you can be convicted of a drunk driving crime.
As with any other crime, the law requires that representatives of the state – police and prosecutors – must be able to provide evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused has committed each element of the charged crime. While this sounds somewhat technical, it essentially means that if the police can show enough evidence that you violated a drunk driving law, you can be convicted of drunk driving – even if you never felt intoxicated.
Regardless of the circumstances, you should always talk to a lawyer if you face any kind of criminal charge. The difference between a manageable drunk driving charge and a permanently life-altering conviction is not something you want to leave to chance. Consulting a lawyer is always the best way to protect yourself.
Have you or has anyone you love been affected by drunk driving?