Basics of a Drunk Driving Case

Driving a vehicle while under the influence of an alcoholic substance is not only a crime but also a major concern among citizens in the United States. Every year, more than 45,000 people receive injuries severe enough that they must be hospitalized. In addition, according the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), approximately 17,000 people injured in drunk driving accidents are killed because of drunk drivers. The most frustrating fact about drunk driving is that every injury and every death caused by drunk driving is preventable.

The two typical charges cited in drink driving cases are driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated/impaired (DWI). The definitions and penalties of both vary from state to state in the US. Some states like Minnesota do not acknowledge DUIs and only cite DWI for drunk driving offenses. While in other states, like New Jersey, DUI and DWI are virtually the same offense. In New York, a DUI is a lesser infraction than a DWI, differentiated by the blood-alcohol-concentration (BAC) of the driver.

DUI Laws

DUI laws vary from state to state. A growing trend in today's justice system is harsher and harsher penalties for drunk driving convictions. As it stands today, 39 states have laws making DUI a felony after multiple DUI or DWI convictions and several other states are considering adding felony DUI laws.

Every state has adopted the .08 legal state limit BAC DUI law. This means that anyone who receives a score of .08 or higher on the breathalyzer test will be taken into police custody and charged with either a DUI or DWI. Commercial drivers suffer stiffer penalties and must abide by different BAC limits due to their occupation.

Another recent trend in many states is the implementation of Zero Tolerance laws for drivers under 21 into their statutes. Zero Tolerance laws are what they sound like: zero tolerance for alcohol or any other intoxicating substance in the bloodstream while driving. The legal limit for these cases are .01 - .02 BAC, which is virtually nil.

Implied consent laws are another recent implementation to state laws and statutes. Implied consent laws work on the principle that anyone who is issued a drivers license must submit to BAC and field sobriety tests when asked by a police officer. Denial may put the driver at risk of license revocation if denied.

DUI Cases

The first step in any criminal case is the criminal act itself. In the case of drunk driving, a person pulled over by a police officer for suspicion of driving drunk can be cited with misdemeanor DUI or felony DUI, if the severity of the circumstance warrants. Felony DUIs are typically reserved for people with multiple DUI convictions and carry stiffer fines and penalties than misdemeanor DUIs.

When a person is pulled over for suspicion of driving drunk or in an erratic manner, a police officer will observe the situation at hand and probably ask the diver to submit to a voluntary field sobriety test and/or a breathalyzer exam. Field sobriety tests, however, are voluntary only in theory because of the penalties inherent in refusing to comply with the test. Yes, you can refuse a field sobriety test, but you will automatically be arrested for refusing. After conducting the field sobriety test, the officer may conclude that there is probable cause to make an arrest and will then take the driver into custody where he or she will be charged with DUI, DWI, or a related charge.

The next part of a DUI case involves the trial. Most drunk driving cases do not make it to the trial stage. Since a majority of drunk driving cases are misdemeanor crimes, the person charged will often plead "no contest" and suffer a more lenient sentence than a person found guilty after a trial.

Drunk Driving Penalties

The penalties a person convicted on a drunk driving charge faces often include hefty fines and incarceration. The severity of the penalty factors in previous convictions by the offender, history of the driver, and the severity of the offense. Common sentences for first-time drunk driving offenders include DWI fines starting at $500 – 5,000 and up to one year in jail. Repeat offenders can receive fines up to $150,000 in some states and sentences of more than ten years in prison.

Sentences of DUI and DWI may also be enhanced on a case-by-case basis depending on various factors including:

  • Age of Offender
  • Level of Intoxication
  • Zero Tolerance Laws
  • Any Injuries or Collisions

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