As with any criminal charge, a person charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) (also called "driving under the influence" (DUI)) is presumed innocent until proven guilty. If guilt is established (often through the defendant's own plea or after a jury trial), the penalty will depend on state law, as well as on any aggravating circumstances (such as accidents and injuries).
In most states, a first-offense DUI or DWI is classified as a misdemeanor and punishable by no more than six months or a year in jail. However, in a few states, the maximum jail time for a first DUI is even shorter. For example, the maximum jail time for a first DWI in New Jersey is 30 days. And, although it's uncommon, there are states like Pennsylvania where a first DUI doesn't carry any possible jail time. Many states also require minimum jail sentences of at least several days on a first offense.
With second and subsequent DUIs, the maximum possible jail time might be greater. But it's even more common for the mandatory minimum jail sentence to be longer than it is for a first offense. In Colorado, for instance, the minimum jail time is five days for a first offense, 10 days for a second offense, and 60 days for a third offense. But the maximum jail time for a first, second, and third DUI in Colorado is one year—the same for all three offenses.
Lots of other circumstances can also affect the amount of jail time you can expect for a DUI conviction. For example, some states mandate more severe punishments for DUI or DUI offenders whose blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at the time of arrest was particularly high. Many states also have penalties enhancements related to DUI accidents.
For a DUI or DWI that's been classified as a felony—either because the driver killed or injured someone or because the driver has a number of prior DUI convictions—jail sentences of several years are not uncommon. Again, the specifics depend on state law, the facts of the case, and the discretion of the judge at trial.
DUI convictions almost always result in fines. DUI fines vary quite a bit by state. But, generally, the same kinds of factors that increase jail time also increase the amount of the fine the driver can expect to pay.
In most states, a standard first DUI conviction carries somewhere in the range of $500 to $2,000 in fines. The fines for subsequent offenses and DUI involving aggravating factors can go well up into the thousands.
A DUI or DWI offender stands a good chance of having his or her license suspended for a substantial period of time (either by court order or mandate of the state motor vehicles department). As with other penalties, suspension periods are normally tied to how many prior convictions the driver has. For example, in California, the suspension period for a first DUI conviction is six months, second DUI conviction is two years, and third DUI conviction is three years.
A driver's unlawful refusal to take a blood, breath, or urine test can also result in a license suspension. Typically, the suspension imposed for an unlawful refusal is longer than what the driver would otherwise face.
It's sometimes possible for a motorist to obtain a "hardship license" to drive to and from places like work and school during a DUI suspension.
Some states take further steps to make sure the person (particularly a repeat offender) doesn't get back on the road while under the influence. The state might confiscate the car or cancel its registration, either temporarily or permanently. Or the state might require an ignition interlock device (IID) to be attached to the offender's car.
In a number of states, alternative sentencing options are available to certain offenders such as substance abuse education and prevention programs, treatment for substance abuse, and community service. Judges in these states might recommend these steps instead of jail time or paying fines, most likely for a first offender. Or the judge might combine them with other penalties.
A minor who's convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs might face somewhat different penalties than convicted adults. Most states have zero-tolerance laws that prohibit drivers who are younger than 21 years old to drive with even a small amount of alcohol in their system. Zero-tolerance offenses typically don't carry jail time but will result in license suspension and fines.
In addition to legal penalties, the driver's insurance company may cancel the insurance policy or drastically increase the rates because of a DUI conviction. And a DUI conviction stays on a person's driving record for many years.
Also, certain jobs may be closed to those who've been convicted of a DUI, such as driving a school bus, delivery van, or any other vehicle as part of their employment.
Finally, the driver may face a separate civil lawsuit if accident victims decide to sue for property damages or bodily injuries.
To find out what the fines, jail time, and other penalties for a drunk driving conviction are in your state, choose from the list below: