Drinking and driving is a serious offense in all 50 states. While every state has its own set of DUI laws on the books, most share commonalities with other states to keep this deadly crime to a minimum.
Regardless of where you live or in what state you commit a DUI offense, you could find yourself subject to harsh DWI legal penalties. You can avoid them and make better choices about driving after consuming alcohol by learning more about common DUI and DWI laws in the U.S.
Minimum Blood Alcohol Content Levels
A majority of the 50 states have adopted a minimum blood alcohol content or BAC of 0.08 percent. This means that a driver must have a BAC that is lower than 0.08 percent if he or she is to avoid being charged with a DUI or DWI.
Many mandates like California DUI laws acknowledge that people reach this minimum 0.08 percent at varying rates. Some people particularly those who are accustomed to drinking alcohol on a frequent basis can consume higher amounts of alcohol before they reach a 0.08 BAC. Other people who are not used to drinking regularly only need to drink one or two beers or mixed drinks before they find themselves well over the 0.08 legal limit.
Regardless of how long it takes you to reach the minimum 0.08 BAC limit, you can face any number of legal consequences if you are charged and found guilty under California DUI laws or other state DWI laws. The minimum punishment allowable under many states’ laws is an expensive civil fine and court costs. These laws require you to pay the monetary obligation to the city, county, or state in which you were convicted if you want to avoid being sentenced to jail.
Other laws say that DUI convicts must forgo their driving privileges or use an ignition breathalyzer test before they can drive a motor vehicle. This sentence can last for several months or up to several years depending on what laws apply to your case and under what laws you were convicted.
The severest penalties under most California DUI law and state DWI laws sentence DWI offenders to jail time. Jail time can mean serving out a brief stint in the city or county jail. It can also mean serving out a lengthy sentence in a state or federal prison. The laws about DUI jail sentences generally target people who are repeat offenders or DWI convicts who have caused damage or harm to human life or public or private property. Milder sentences like fines and breathalyzer tests are not severe enough to pay back these DWI offenders’ obligation to society.
But how exactly can a police officer know if you are breaking any of the state’s DUI laws or if you can lawfully be charged with a DWI? Depending on the state you live or are driving in, you could give law enforcement probable cause to pull you over and compel you to submit to some type of field sobriety testing. Again, however, the laws regarding breathalyzer and field sobriety testing varies with each state.
Probable Cause Laws
California DUI laws and DWI laws in other states permit law enforcement to stop and detain drivers if the drivers give police officers enough probable cause. The factors for determining DUI probable cause are generally uniform in each state. Regardless of where you live or what state you are driving in, you may be pulled over on suspicion of DUI under that state’s laws if, while you are driving a vehicle, you:
- straddle the center or lane marker
- visibly appear to be inebriated
- almost hit an object, person, or another vehicle
- actually hit an object, person, or another vehicle
- weaving in and out of traffic
- drive the wrong way on a one-way road
- stop without cause in the lane of traffic
- drift on and off the shoulder or over the center line
- brake erratically
- drive into oncoming or crossing traffic
- turn illegally or abruptly
- signal inconsistently with your driving actions
- accelerate or decelerate quickly
- drive with the headlights off
Under California DUI laws and other state DWI laws, you can be pulled over and asked to submit to field sobriety testing if you demonstrate any of these behaviors while driving a motor vehicle. You also may be required under the state’s laws for DUI and DWI to step out your vehicle for a breathalyzer test at a sobriety checkpoint.
Laws about Breathalyzer and Field Sobriety Tests
Under California DUI laws and other state DWI laws, you may not be required to submit to a field sobriety test if you are pulled over for suspicion of DWI or DUI. Many state laws do, however, require you to take a breathalyzer test if you exhibit any of the driving behaviors that give law enforcement probable cause to stop you. You may not have any choice but to submit to a breathalyzer test according to the laws in the state in which you are driving or live.
The results of your breathalyzer test will show if you are in violation of the state’s BAC laws or if you are under the legal 0.08 limit. If you are over the limit for BAC, you may be asked to submit to a field sobriety test. The field sobriety test can range from standing on one leg to reciting the ABCs backwards. Most states do not have specific laws about what kinds of DUI or DWI field testing can and cannot be given to suspected drunk drivers.
However, most states’ DWI laws do not require suspected DUI drivers to submit to any kind of field sobriety testing. Depending on the laws in which you live or in which you are driving, you might have the luxury of telling the officer no even if your breathalyzer test shows you are over the legal DUI limit.
In fact, some DUI lawyers tell clients to only submit to field sobriety testing if the state laws require them to do so or if the officer is showing the intent of arresting the driver already for DUI. If you are about to be arrested for DWI anyway, you may see no reason not to submit to a field sobriety test even if the state laws do not require you to do so.
You should know, however, that many state laws that give you the option of not undergoing field sobriety DUI tests also say that the officer can arrest you anyway for suspicion of drunk driving. Even if you refuse the DUI field sobriety test, you could still be detained and taken to the police station for further DWI testing, which can include having to give a blood or urine sample. You also may have to wait in jail until you can be arraigned or bonded or bailed out of jail.
With this information in mind, you can decide if you want to submit to any kind of DWI field sobriety testing or take your chance on a breathalyzer test. Regardless of the decision you make, you are entitled to certain legal protections that can help you prepare a DUI defense to take before a judge and court.
Laws Regarding the Right to Legal DUI Counsel
All 50 states have laws on the books that say you are entitled to competent DWI legal counsel after you have been arrested on suspicion of DUI. The laws in each state give you the right to call and retain a DUI attorney. Depending on where you live, the laws say you might need to wait to hire a DUI lawyer until after you have been booked, fingerprinted, and formally arraigned on a DUI charge.
You might wonder why you should retain a DUI lawyer in the first place. After all, would it not be much simpler just to appear before the judge, plead guilty or no contest, and take your punishment under the state’s DUI laws?
You have every right to use this option if you choose. However, you should know that many states have no laws on the books about field sobriety testing or in what manner a police officer should administer one of these tests. Some police departments do not even train their police officers to give field sobriety tests. They more or less allow officers to use their own best judgment before arresting drivers for DUI.
With this in mind about your state’s laws, why would you not want to retain a lawyer who knows the laws and can determine if you were given a test that was fair and accurate? Your attorney can review the facts about your arrest and decide if the police officer had probable cause to pull you over in the first place. If you were given a field sobriety test, your attorney can review the dashcam footage and make sure the test was given in a lawful and accurate manner.
Even if the state’s laws say you had no choice but to submit to the test, you can still retain a lawyer who will make sure your rights are protected during every step of the case. Your attorney can build a case that could help you avoid the harshest penalties under your state’s laws. For example, if you are a first-time offender, you may not deserve having to pay a steep fine and court costs.
The laws in the state may not give you any choice but to submit to the penalty if you do not have an attorney assisting you. With a lawyer working your case, you could have those fines reduced significantly or even dismissed. At most, you might have to pay court costs, which could total less than $100 depending on where you live.
The laws where you live also can mandate harsh penalties if you are a repeat offender or if you have harmed a person or property during your offense. You could lose much if not all of your normal everyday life if you are found guilty. Worse yet, you could be sentenced to years in jail or prison.
Even if you are guilty, you need an attorney arguing on your behalf. You might have succumbed to emotional distress that caused you to drink and drive. You also may not have been able to avoid hitting the person or property while you were driving.
An objective lawyer can work on your behalf and present the best argument for your situation. He or she could have the charges against you argued down to a misdemeanor. You also may be released on probation or with a community service sentence.
Each state is different in what kinds of DUI laws it has adopted for drivers within its boundaries. Before you get behind the wheel of a car after consuming alcohol, you should learn what these laws are and how they can potentially affect you if you are pulled over, arrested for, and found guilty of driving under the influence.