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A Guide to Navigating Life with a DUI or DWI

You're driving home after a few drinks at dinner when the red and blue lights begin flashing in your rearview mirror; your stomach plummets as you realize you're about to be charged with a DUI or DWI.

Or the worst happens: you wake up in a jail cell the morning following a night out with friends with no recollection of how you ended up behind bars. The patrolling officer glares at you as he passes, ignoring your desperate questioning: "What happened? Why am I here?"

You soon find out you were arrested for vehicular manslaughter. You killed a mother and her newborn child while driving 100 MPH on the freeway. You don't even remember it happening.

DUI Statistics

  • 28.7 million individuals drove under the influence of alcohol in 2013
  • Every day, an admitted 300,000 people drink and drive
  • 28 people died from an alcohol-impaired car crash every day in 2015
  • A person is injured in a drunk driving accident every two minutes
  • More than 160 million people were arrested for a DUI in 2013

Outlined in this guide are some of the legal repercussions for driving under the influence, what to do if you are arrested or convicted, and how to manage after you go through the experience. Your life will not end if you are charged with a DUI or DWI but you will face significant challenges.

Most people don't realize how quickly the legal limit for driving under the influence can be reached when they're out for the night and drinking without planning ahead.

If you or a loved one were one of those who found themselves in the back of a police car after driving under the influence, this guide is for you.

What is the legal limit for a DUI or DWI?

dui legal limit

The nationwide, federal limit for receiving a DUI for an adult ages 21 and over is a 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration level (BAC). The average American male, standing at 195 pounds, reaches this level after 4 drinks are consumed in one hour. The average 165 pound woman hits the legal limit for a DUI after 2 drinks in an hour. One drink equals:

  • 1.5 ounces of liquor at 40% alcohol content
  • 5 ounces of wine at 12% alcohol content
  • 12 ounces of beer at 4.5% alcohol content

Most people don't realize how quickly the legal limit for driving under the influence can be reached when they're out for the night and drinking without planning ahead. Services like Uber and Lyft have likely saved thousands of lives since their inception as well as many from the legal repercussions of a DUI or DWI. It is absolutely necessary to consider how you'll get home if you plan to have more than one drink while you're out.

If you're operating a commercial vehicle, the legal limit is .04 percent. If you're under the age of 21, the limits for minors range from .00 percent (zero-tolerance laws) to .02 percent.

What is the difference between a DUI vs. DWI charge?

There are a few different terms for substance impaired driving, usually referred to as a DUI or DWI. These words are often used interchangeably and there generally is no difference to them other than the meanings of the acronyms. States use different terms to charge for drunk driving and some of them include:

  • DUI: Driving Under the Influence. Refers to individuals who were driving under the influence of alcohol specifically, with a BAC of .08 percent or greater, while operating a vehicle.
  • DWI: Driving While Intoxicated or Driving While Impaired. Individuals with this charge were under driving while their functioning was impaired by alcohol or drugs. They may or may not have had a BAC of .08 or greater, depending on the verbiage of the state.
  • DWAI: Driving While Ability Impaired. This refers to individuals who had impaired functioning due to alcohol or drugs but whose BAC was not greater than the legal limit.
  • DUIL: Driving Under the Influence of Liquor
  • DUII: Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants. DUII refers to individuals whose BAC was greater than .08 percent
  • OUI: Operating Under the Influence. Used when the individual arrested was under the influence of alcohol. (used only in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island)
  • OWI: Operating While Intoxicated. The individual is impaired either by alcohol or drugs.
  • OMVI: Operating a Motor Vehicle while Intoxicated

The main difference to take into consideration is whether or not your BAC is above .08 percent, the legal limit. When it is above this limit, the penalties will be much more severe than if you're operating the vehicle while below the legal limit. It's important to know the specific acronyms used in your state as what constitutes above the legal limits in some states refers to charges below the legal limits in others.

Regardless of the language or acronym used, all of these terms refer to those who were operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of either alcohol or drugs to some extent. Some states use these terms interchangeably while others use specific ones. No matter what charge you receive, each carry heavy penalties that can result in a heavy burden financially, legally, physically, and mentally.

How does an officer conduct a DUI or DWI assessment?

When a law officer notices you driving erratically, carelessly, or recklessly, they are entitled to pull you over under the suspicion of driving while drunk. You can also be pulled over for the violation of a traffic law or something as simple as a burnt out tail light. In more extreme cases, officers will come onto the scene of a car accident. Regardless of what got you into the situation, once you are under suspicion, the officer will conduct a DUI or DWI assessment to determine whether or not you are under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Regardless of what got you into the situation, once you are under suspicion, the officer will conduct a DUI or DWI assessment to determine whether or not you are under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

The most common DUI or DWI assessment is a field sobriety test. Through a series of small physical tests, an officer can look for reactions that occur only when you has been drinking. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released an outline for a Standardized Field Sobriety Test in 1981 to help officers determine whether an individual is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Though states are not required to follow this federal outline, they are used as guidelines for each state's individual field sobriety tests. The NHTSA's Standardized Field Sobriety Test consists of:

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test: Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is when the eyeball jerks involuntarily while you turn your gaze to the side. Though it also occurs while you are sober, HGN is more pronounced when under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. In a Standardized Field Sobriety Test, an officer will have you use your eyes to follow an object like their finger, a pen, or a flashlight as they move it around. While conducting this test, officers look three different signs:

  • Whether or not your eyes follow the object smoothly
  • If your eye is consistently jerking while your gaze is held at a specific angle
  • If your eye jerks before 45 degrees from your center of vision

Walk and Turn Test: During the Walk and Turn Test, you are required to take a certain number of consecutive steps (usually nine) while touching your heel to your toe on each. Once you've taken the assigned amount of steps, you must turn around on one foot and then walk back in the same heel-to-toe way with the same amount of steps. This test is conducted on a straight line, such as the line divider at the edge of a road. Officers will look for eight different signs of intoxication:

  • If you cannot maintain your balance while receiving instructions
  • If you begin before the instructions are finished
  • If you stop while walking to find your balance
  • If you do not walk heel to toe
  • If you use your arms to help you balance
  • If you step off of the line

One Leg Stand Test: During this test, the officer will instruct you to stand on one foot and raise the other roughly six inches off the ground. Then you must count up from one for about thirty seconds. The officer will look for using your arms to balance, hopping on one foot to maintain your balance, or skipping a number while counting.

Standardized Field Sobriety Tests have been extensively researched and most recently shown to provide an accurate DUI or DWI assessment up to 90% of the time. As for the results of each test:

  • HGN test resulted in a correct assessment 88% of the time
  • Walk and Turn Test was accurate 79% of the time
  • One Leg Stand Test was correct 83% of the time

In addition to the Standardized Field Sobriety Test, if a breathalyzer is available, it will be used to determine an accurate depiction of your BAC level. If a breathalyzer is not available once you fail your Standardized Field Sobriety Test, you will be tested once you arrive at the jail.

DUI Checkpoints are another common way that people are found to be driving under the influence and forced to perform a DUI or DWI assessment. During a DUI Checkpoint, a group of officers are stationed in the roadway to stop vehicles randomly and check whether or not they have been drinking or using drugs. Depending on the checkpoint and the amount of cars in the area, officers may stop every car or only those they suspect to be under the influence. Not every state in America conducts field sobriety tests. 12 of the 13 states who do not conduct these tests consider them to be against federal laws.

If you do not pass the test, you will be subjected to a breathalyzer test and then arrested if you are suspected to be under the influence.

DUI Checkpoints are most common in heavily trafficked areas such as downtown areas or those with multiple bars or restaurants. Oftentimes they are set up during major holidays such as the Fourth of July or Labor Day as people are out celebrating in larger numbers.

If an officer suspects you to be intoxicated while driving through a DUI Checkpoint, they will pull you over to the side and conduct a field sobriety test. If you do not pass the test, you will be subjected to a breathalyzer test and then arrested if you are suspected to be under the influence.

DUI Checkpoints provide officers a way to conduct greater amounts of DUI or DWI assessments in a more condensed area. These checkpoints help officers get larger amounts of drunk drivers off of the roads to get others home safely.

dui assessment

What happens if you refuse a DUI or DWI assessment?

When you receive your license, the paperwork you sign includes implied consent for a blood, breath, or urine analysis if you're under the suspicion of driving under the influence. When you refuse a DUI or DWI assessment such as a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer test, an officer can still arrest you under the suspicion of drunk driving. Your car will be impounded and you will be taken to the local jail where you will be subjected to forced tests.

There are difficulties that arise when you a DUI or DWI assessment due to the increased amount of time that passes while you're transported to the jail. During this time, your BAC level can drop and result in you testing below a .08 percent, the legal limit. However, law enforcement is able to use test data gathered at a certain time afterwards and use it to estimate your BAC at the time of arrest, taking into account sex, height, and weight.

Some states allow officers to receive search warrants to conduct DUI or DWI assessments when an individual refuses the test. Though not available in every state, they are helpful to officers who deal with those who refuse.

What happens when you get a DUI or DWI?

After you have failed a DUI or DWI assessment officers have the suspicion that you were driving while under the influence of alcohol, different states require different procedures. In every state, you will be arrested and booked into the local jail for at least a night. Depending on the state, you may be allowed to have someone post bail the following morning and pick you up. Regardless of the state you are in, your license will be suspended (as this is required by federal law) and you will receive a court date.

During court, you will appear before a judge where the evidence against you will be presented and you will have to plead either guilty or not guilty. Depending on the results of your court hearing and which state you reside or are arrested in, different things will happen. Additionally, the penalties will change if you've been convicted of an additional DUI prior to your current arrest.

How long will my license be suspended for?

Your license will be suspended immediately upon your arrest once the officer forwards the request for suspension to the Department of Motor Vehicles. You will have a 10 day period in which to submit a request for a hearing with the DMV to protest the suspension. If the review shows that there is no evidence or basis for suspension of your license it will be reinstated. However, if you do not pass your hearing or you do not request one, there are a few different suspension times depending on your age and previous arrest history.

If you are 21 and older and it's your first DUI offense, you will receive a 4 month suspension of your license. If it is your second or more offense within 10 years, you will receive a 1 year suspension. If you are under the age of 21 and your BAC was .01 percent or higher, your license will be suspended for 1 year, regardless of whether or not it is your first offense.

The suspensions are greater if you refused to take a DUI or DWI assessment test. If you are 21 and older you will receive a 1 year suspension for your first offense and a 2 year revocation for your second offense, and your third or more offense will result in a 3 year revocation. If you are under the age of 21, the suspension and revocation lengths are the same.

You can find out more information regarding license suspension for DUIs on the California Department of Motor Vehicles' website.

A DUI in Oregon is referred to as a DUII, or Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants. Once you are arrested for a DUII, an officer will administer a 30 day temporary driving permit which will allow you to make arrangements before the suspension takes hold after the 30 day period. Oregon DUII laws are some of the most severe, occasionally resulting in permanent license suspension.

If it's your first DUII offense, you will receive a 90 day license suspension. If it is your second or greater offense within 5 years, your license will be suspended from 1 year up to permanent suspension.

If you refuse to take a blood or urine assessment, you will have your license suspended for 1 year if it's your first offense. If you've had an offense or more within the past 5 years, your license will be suspended for 2 years.

Further information about license suspension for DUIIs in Oregon can be found on the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles website.

The Washington State Department of Licensing separates license suspension requirements depending on whether your were simply arrested for suspicion of a DUI or actually convicted of the DUI.

If you are arrested for a DUI in Washington state, you are able to request a hearing within 20 days to determine whether there is sufficient grounds for a license suspension. If the hearing examiner decides there IS sufficient grounds or you do not request a hearing, your license can be suspended for 90 days to 2 years. The length depends on whether or not you have been arrested for a DUI before and the severity of the incident which resulted in the arrest. Your license suspension begins 60 days after your arrest.

If you are convicted of a DUI, your license will be suspended for the length the court decides for you, varying from 90 days to 4 years, depending on the severity of the incident which lead to your arrest or the presence of any prior DUI convictions. Suspension begins 45 days after your arrest and the courts will award you suspension time served after your arrest.

The Washington State Department of Licensing's website has further information on license suspension after a DUI arrest.

In Texas, DUIs are referred to strictly as DWIs (Driving While Intoxicated). When arrested for your first DWI and over the age of 21, your license can be suspended for up to, but not exceeding, two years depending on the severity of the incident.

If you are under the age of 21, your license will be suspended for 1 year.

The website for the Texas Department of Public Safety has additional information.

In Idaho if you're ages 21 and older, a first-time conviction of a DUI results in your license being suspended for anywhere from 90 to 180 days. You will not be allowed any driving privileges at all in the first 30 days. If it's your second offense within 5 years, you will receive a mandatory 2 year license suspension. For those with the third or greater offense, your license will be suspended for anywhere from 1 to 5 years.

If you are under 21, the penalties are stiffer. For first-time offenders, your license will be suspended for 1 year. If it's your second offense your license can be suspended for 2 years. For any offenses after your second, similar to adults, your license will be suspended for 1 to 5 years.

The Idaho Transportation Department's website outlines their license suspension requirements.

The penalty for a first offense in New York is a revoked license for at least six months. When it's your second offense, your license will be revoked for at least 1 year. After your third or greater offense, your license will still be revoked for at least one year.

When you receive a DWI while under the age of 21, your license will be revoked for at least 1 year.

Additionally, if you refuse to take a DUI or DWI assessment, your license will be revoked for a minimum of 18 months.

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles website contains further information.


What are the legal repercussions for a DUI or DWI?

There are a variety of legal repercussions for a DUI or DWI charge and they depend upon the state in which you reside. In all states you will receive fines and face possible jail time but the amount of money and time will vary. Some states allow community service or house arrest instead of jail time and the judge will sentence you accordingly.

Additionally, some states require ignition interlock devices, which is a device that attaches to a car ignition. The device functions as a breathalyzer and you must blow into it with no alcohol in your system in order to start the car. These devices are intended to keep individuals from operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

Some of the legal repercussions for DUI and DWI charges in various states are outlined below.

California

In California, there is a 10 year period in which you will receive greater legal repercussions for a DUI or DWI charge. This is referred to as the "lookback period".

First-time offenders will receive fines of up to $1,000 and potentially be sent to jail for 30 days to 6 months. On a second charge, you may receive 10 days to 1 year of jail time and up to $1,800 in fines. If it is your third offense within a 10 year period, jail time can be anywhere from 120 days to 1 year in addition to fines of up to $1,800.

Ignition interlock devices are required for first time offenders in certain counties but not in others. There is a statewide requirement for IIDs for anyone with a second offense or more.

Oregon refers to DUIs as a DUII, or Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants. When you are arrested for a DUII in Oregon, you will not face legal repercussions for a DUI or DWI immediately. Instead, you must attend your assigned court date in order to receive a sentence from the judge before anything is implemented.

When it's your first time being arrested for a DUII, you may be sentenced from 2 days to 1 year in jail and forced to pay $1,000 to $2,000 in fines. For a second offense, you may face jail time of up to 1 year in addition to $2,000 to $10,000 in fines. Jail time of up to 5 years and $2,000 to $10,000 are possible for those with their third or greater DUII conviction.

Ignition interlock devices are required for any amount of DUII charges, including first-time offenders. The judge may also assign you community service hours instead of jail time if it's your first offense.

When you refuse to take a DUI or DWI assessment, you will receive additional penalties. On top of an increased license suspension, you will receive more fines of anywhere from $500 to $1,000.

The legal repercussions for a DUI or DWI in Washington state in regards to jail time are less severe than in other states. Even for those who are third-time offenders, jail time caps at a maximum of 1 year in most cases.

For those who are first-time offenders, fines from $865.50 to $5,000 are possible, in addition to 1 day to 1 year of jail time. Second-time offenders will receive fines between $1,120.50 to $5,000 and 30 days to 1 year in jail. Finally, those with a third or greater DUI charge will be fined $1,970.50 to $5,000 and face 90 days to 1 year of jail time.

Ignition interlock devices are mandatory for anyone with a DUI charge, including those with first-time offenses.

Electronic home monitoring while confined to the house may be implemented instead of jail time as part of the 24/7 Sobriety Program in Washington state. This depends upon the sentence the judge hands down during your court hearing.

In addition to license suspension, Texas also can place you on probation for a DWI charge. If you are placed on probation, you must complete a 12 hour class in an Alcohol Education Program within 180 days of your conviction. The classes are available through the Texas Department of State Health Services. Your judge may waive your requirement to attend these classes in certain circumstances.

In some cases, you may be allowed a license with the installment of an interlock ignition device on your car. You may also have to pay heavy fines of up to $10,000 or face jail time between 3 and 180 days (even for first-time offenses in extreme cases) when charged with a DWI.

If you receive a DWI with a child in the car, regardless of whether or not you've been convicted of a DWI in the past, you may be charged up to $10,000 as well as receiving up to 2 years in jail.

The legal repercussions for DUI and DWI infractions in Idaho depend on the severity of the incident or accident as well as whether or not you've previously been convicted of a DUI. Even for those who are first-time offenders, the results are severe. In addition to license suspension, first-time offenders face up to $1,000 in fines as well as a possible stay in jail for up to 6 months.

Second-time offenders can be fined up to $2,000 and face a mandatory minimum of 10 days in jail but may be held for up to 1 full year. Their vehicle is also required to be equipped with an ignition interlock device as well as a suspended (not restricted) license.

If it's your third or more DUI offense within 10 years, you will be charged with a felony. You face fines of up to $5,000 as well as a mandatory 30 day jail stay. You may face jail time of up to 5 years. Again, an ignition interlock device installed in your vehicle is required on top of your suspended license.

If you refuse a DUI or DWI assessment, your license is suspended for 1 year and you'll receive a $250 fine to reinstate it.

Like all other states, the penalties for a DWI in New York depend upon the amount of infractions you've previously been charged with. Regardless of the amount of infractions you've had, every individual charged with a DWI must install an ignition interlock device in their car.

If you're a first-time offender, you will pay a fine of anywhere from $500 to $1,000 and face a maximum jail term of 1 year. If this is your second DWI charge, your fines will be between $1,000 and $5,000 and you may receive a jail sentence of up to 4 years. For third-time or more offenders, heavy fines of $2,000 to $10,000 are assigned and you may face up to 7 years in jail.

If your BAC is not above the legal limit but you are still intoxicated, you will be charged with a DWAI, or Driving While Ability Impaired. The penalties for DWAIs are less severe than those for DWIs.

When you are charged with your first DWAI, your fines will be between $300 and $500 and you may receive a jail sentence of up to 15 days. Fines for your second DWAI are between $500 and $750 and up to 30 days of jail time. For your third or greater DWAI, you will be charged with a misdemeanor and receive fines from $750 to $1,500 and face up to 180 days of jail time.


What happens in court-ordered treatment for a DUI or DWI?

In order to reduce recidivism rates and repeat DUI or DWI offenses, some legal repercussions of DUI or DWI charges include court-ordered treatment. Often referred to as "drug court", court-ordered treatment for DUI or DWI charges will be assigned by the judge of your case. Drug court has been shown to be one of the most effective courses of treatment for those with repeat DUI and DWI cases.

Some court-ordered treatment for DUI or DWI charges include state-sponsored Alcohol Awareness Courses, like those in Texas. These are licensed and provided by the state in classrooms with state workers. Classes include education surrounding alcohol abuse and driving under the influence, as well as information regarding Alcohol Use Disorder and alcoholism.

Occasionally, attendance at 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous will be assigned during court-ordered treatment for DUI or DWI. These programs also help individuals struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder or alcoholism to find a place where they may recover. Just because you receive a DUI doesn't mean that you're an alcoholic, but many times alcoholics will receive a DUI. If they aren't aware of the programs available to help them, drug court may help them locate these programs.

When you are found to have an Alcohol Use Disorder after being arrested for driving under the influence, many times the judge will sentence them to court-ordered treatment for DUI or DWI cases. This treatment can take place in a variety of treatment center types and the one you attend will depend on what the judge has sentenced you to.

  • Detox: Drug and alcohol detox is used to separate an individual from drugs and alcohol and remove all of the substances from their system. Your court-ordered treatment for DUI or DWI will include detox if you have a severe Alcohol Use Disorder. When you are drinking heavily on a daily basis, you will experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms once you stop drinking. These include sweating, tremors, irritation, anger, nausea, vomiting, and, in extreme cases, delirium tremens. Many detoxes provide a medication-assisted detox which helps manage these withdrawal symptoms during the first few days.
  • Inpatient rehabilitation: Inpatient rehabilitation, often referred to simply as "rehab", is a 30-, 60-, or 90-day program where an individual lives in a supervised environment away from drugs and alcohol. Court-ordered treatment for DUI or DWI will consist of inpatient rehab when the judge feels as though they will be unable to stay away from drugs or alcohol on their own without the care and assistance of a 24/7 staff. During inpatient treatment, you will learn coping skills and trigger management that will help you learn to avoid turning to alcohol during times of stress.
  • Intensive Outpatient Program or Outpatient Program: Sometimes when your Alcohol Use Disorder is less severe, the judge's court-ordered treatment for DUI or DWI will be for an outpatient program instead of an inpatient program. Outpatient teaches the same trigger management and coping skills provided by inpatient treatment but on a less-intensive schedule.

Court-ordered treatment for DUI and DWI charges prove to be an effective measure for those struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder. Sometimes those with a problem are unaware of how drastically they are impacted by their alcohol use. These individuals need court-ordered treatment to help them sober up and realize what their drinking is doing to them and those around them.

What to Do Now with DUI or DWI Charges

Once you've gone to court, received your charges, paid your fines, gone through treatment, and/or done your jail time, what do you do now? The best course of action is to obviously refrain from using alcohol before driving a car. However, if you believe you're struggling with an Alcohol Use Disorder, finding a way to get sober completely is the best course of action.

You can get sober through court-ordered treatment for DUI or DWI charges and then continue treatment afterwards on your own time, either through an Intensive Outpatient Program or drug and alcohol counseling. You could also attend a 12-step program that will provide you with a path to gain and maintain sobriety. Though it is a difficult way to find out, sometimes receiving a DUI or DWI charge is necessary in order to realize the impact that alcohol has on your life. There is help available to you if you seek it and you never have to get sober alone.

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