A DUI conviction typically carries up to six months in jail, thousands of dollars in fines, and driver's license revocation. However, many states have special programs that allow first-offenders to avoid some of these penalties. These programs focus on rehabilitation and giving violators a second chance rather than just punishment. This article explains how first-offender and diversion programs work and the benefits and drawbacks for participants.
Diversion programs essentially boil down to a contract between the prosecutor and the offender. The offender admits the DUI charge, and the prosecutor agrees to dismiss the charge once the offender completes the requirements of the diversion program. If the offender fails to complete the requirements, the prosecutor will reinstate the DUI charge based on the offender's earlier admission of guilt.
Diversions are generally not available for DUI offenders who have prior DUI convictions, pending criminal charges, previously participated in a diversion program, or extensive criminal histories. Federal regulations also prohibit CDL (commercial driver's license) holders from getting a DUI diversion.
Once an offender successfully completes a DUI diversion program, the court will dismiss the DUI charge. In other words, the offender won't have a criminal conviction on his or her record that could affect future job or education opportunities. Typically, the driver's record will also be unaffected by the dismissed DUI charge.
Diversion agreements often require substantial effort from offenders. Program requirements normally include paying fines and fees that might be around $1,000 and completion of an alcohol and drug evaluation and any resulting recommendations for treatment. The other downside comes into play only if the driver violates the diversion agreement; when this happens, the court will likely find the offender guilty of the DUI charge—based on the prior admission—and impose the usual jail time, fines, and license revocation.
Some states don't have diversion programs but do have special programs for first-time DUI offenders. First-offender programs are similar to diversion in certain respects, but there are also some notable differences.
Hence the name, DUI offenders are generally eligible for first-offender programs only if the violation is a first offense. First-offender programs also typically restrict eligibility to DUI offenders whose offenses didn't involve certain aggravating factors like property damage, injuries, minor passengers, or extremely high blood alcohol concentrations.
First-offender programs generally replace jail and license revocation with substance abuse treatment and restrictions aimed at preventing repeat offenses. For example, first-offender programs might require participants to attend substance abuse education courses, abstain from all alcohol and drug use, follow all laws, and submit to alcohol and drug testing (which may include wearing an ankle monitor, going to a testing site, and the like).
Many first-offender programs also allow participants to obtain a restricted driver's license. A restricted license normally requires the installation of an ignition interlock device (IID) but can be used to drive during the suspension period.
While first-offender programs allow participants to avoid jail and loss of driving privileges, completion of one of these programs doesn't always erase the conviction. The offender will still have a DUI on his or her record, which may affect job or education opportunities. Additionally, as with diversion programs, failure to comply with program requirements will likely result in the court imposing standard DUI penalties.