How Does an Accident Affect DUI Penalties?

DUI penalty enhancements and aggravating factors related to accidents, injuries, and deaths.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

Generally, the consequences of a DUI (driving under the influence) conviction are going to be more severe if the offense involved an accident. And the more serious the accident, the more severe the consequences can be. (A DUI accident can also lead to a civil suit against the driver.) Here are some of the basics on aggravating factors and penalty enhancements for DUI-related accidents, injuries, property damage, and deaths.

Increased Penalties for DUIs Involving Accidents

The range of penalties you'll face for a DUI are set by statute and generally depend on how many prior DUI convictions you have. But most state laws also include aggravating factors that can increase the normal consequences for a DUI conviction. And the circumstances of an offense—even if not defined by the law as aggravating circumstances—can affect plea bargaining and what penalties a judge decides to impose within the allowable range. It's also possible for a DUI accident to lead to criminal charges in addition to the DUI charge.

DUI Accidents and Aggravating Factors

In states that have accident-related DUI enhancements, the triggering factors are normally injuries, property damage, and deaths. In other words, the accident itself isn't the reason for the enhancements—it's the damage the accident causes.

In New Mexico, for example, a DUI involving accident-related injuries is considered an "aggravated DUI." This classification increases the mandatory jail by two days on a first offense, four days on a second offense, and 60 days on a third offense.

Similarly, in New Hampshire, a DWI (driving while intoxicated) involving serious bodily injury is considered an "aggravate DWI." This type of aggravated DWI is a class B felony and carries 14 days to seven years in jail and $1,000 to $4,000 in fines. (For comparison, a person convicted of a standard first DWI in New Hampshire faces no mandatory jail time and only $500 to $1,200 in fines.)

Each state that has accident-related DUI enhancements does things a little differently. But the general trend is that these enhancements substantially increase the possible penalties a driver faces for a DUI conviction.

Sentencing Discretion and DUI Accidents

When a person is convicted of a DUI at trial, the judge gets to decide what penalties to impose within the allowable range. In making this call, judges generally consider the aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the offense and the offender.

A judge is likely to consider a DUI accident to be a substantial strike against the offender, especially if there were serious injuries or deaths. So, judges tend to sentence quite a bit more harshly in DUI cases involving accidents.

For example, suppose someone is convicted of a first DUI in Colorado. A first DUI carries five days to one year in jail. For most first offenders, a judge might be inclined to go with the five-day minimum. But if a first offender causes an accident with injuries, the judge might more likely impose a sentence that's closer to the one-year maximum.

How a DUI Accident Can Hurt a Driver's Ability to Make a Plea Deal

The overwhelming majority of DUI cases are resolved through plea bargaining. For the defendant, the goal of plea bargaining is to secure a deal that's at the lower end of the allowable penalties. However, prosecutors are normally willing to offer this type of plea deal only in cases that don't involve substantial aggravating factors. So, when a DUI case involves an accident, it can seriously hinder the defendant's ability to strike a good plea bargain.

Criminal Charges Related to DUI Accidents, Injuries, and Deaths

When a drunk driving incident involves injuries or deaths, the responsible driver might be looking at charges in addition to a DUI charge.

In some states, drivers who recklessly (or while under the influence) cause injury to another person can be charged with vehicular assault. And, when a drunk driver ends up killing another person, vehicular manslaughter or even murder charges are a possibility.

All these offenses are typically felonies and often carry substantial prison time and expensive fines. Also, drivers who are convicted of multiple criminal charges typically face separate penalties for each conviction.

Talk to a DUI Attorney

The consequences of a DUI are serious, especially if the offense involved an accident. If you've been arrested for driving under the influence, you should get in contact with an experienced DUI as soon as possible.

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