DUI: Laws Penalties & Sentencing

Here's an overview of possible consequences and types of classifications for driving while under the influence (DUI), driving while intoxicated (OWI), or operating under the influence (OUI).

The crime of drunk driving is commonly referred to as DUI, DWI, OUI, or by similar terms. DUI stands for driving under the influence, and it means driving or operating a vehicle while drunk or under the influence of mind or body altering substances, such as illegal drugs or even prescription medications. Every state has its own drunk driving laws, and while they may not be known as DUI or DWI, all punish drivers to get behind the wheel while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Determining Intoxication

DUI laws are aimed at preventing people from driving while intoxicated. While these laws are often referred to as “drunk driving” laws, they include any time a person is under the influence of an intoxicant. To determine whether a person is intoxicated, police officers typically use a variety of methods. These include conducting field sobriety tests, using a breathalyzer that can measure the level of alcohol in a person's system, or by using blood tests to determine the presence of a variety of chemical substances.

Drugs or Alcohol

DUI punishes dangerous driving activity and includes both drugs and alcohol. This means that a drunk driver can be charged with DUI, but so can a person who is high on marijuana, cocaine, or even someone affected by legal medication. Drugs specifically listed in a state's DUI laws, as well as other non-listed legally prescribed drugs and over-the-counter medication, can all lead to DUI charges.

If you are found with illegal drugs in your system, that will result in automatic DUI charge. On the other hand, if you are under the influence of over-the-counter or prescription medication, DUI charges can result only if you are found to have a decreased ability to operate a vehicle, or if the medication you are on is known to result in an intoxicated state.

“Per SeIntoxication

You do not have to actually feel as if you are drunk or high to be convicted of a DUI crime. States have what are known as “per se” DUI laws. This means that the states have established specific conditions that, once met, will result in a DUI charge. For example, all states have laws that say that if your blood alcohol content, or BAC, is above a specified legal limit, you are intoxicated. This limit differs, but is at least .08%. Also, if tests show that you have in your body any illicit substances, you are also per se under the influence of intoxicants.


DUI crimes can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies, meaning the potential penalties will differ significantly based on the circumstances of the case. Penalties will also differ depending on the state in which the crime is charged. Nevertheless, DUI convictions will typically bring one or more of the following penalties.

  • Prison or jail. It's very common for someone convicted of a DUI to have to serve at least some time in jail or prison. Misdemeanor charges can result in up to a year in jail, while a year or more in the state prison is possible for anyone convicted of a felony offense. In some states, felony convictions bring the possibility of five years or more in prison. To learn more, see the laws on Felony DUI.
  • Fines. In addition to incarceration, someone convicted of DUI will also likely face a fine. The fine amount differs widely, ranging from a few hundred dollars for first-time misdemeanor convictions to up to $10,000 or more for a felony conviction.
  • Probation. If a court sentences you to probation for a DUI conviction you are allowed to serve your punishment while remaining free from jail or prison. Probation usually lasts at least 12 months, but sentences of up to three years or more are also possible. While on probation you must agree to abide by a range of court required conditions. If you fail to meet these obligations the court can impose additional penalties. The specific obligations can differ slightly, but they typically involve meeting regularly with a probation officer, agreeing to submit to random drug and alcohol testing, completing a substance abuse program, not going to places where alcohol is served, finding or maintaining employment, paying all required fines, and not committing more crimes or drunk driving offenses.
  • License suspension. When you are arrested for DUI after the police find your blood alcohol level is above the legal limit, you will have your license to drive immediately suspended. This is not a criminal penalty because the ability to drive a car is not considered a legal right, but rather a privilege. Even if you are not convicted of a DUI crime you can have your license suspended for 60 days, 90 days, or longer. This suspension is a civil process and is essentially a separate trial than your criminal trial for DUI. Repeat offenders or felony offenders can face suspensions of a year or longer.

DUI Laws by State

Each state has their own specific laws and penalties for driving under the influence. To learn more about the laws for DUI in your state follow the links below.

Additional Resources

Learn more about DUI laws by following the links below.

Obtain Legal Advice From a Local Attorney

Even though DUI charges are fairly common in any jurisdiction, these crimes can be very complicated and involve questions about evidence, procedure, and legal precedent. Because each state has a slightly different DUI law, anyone charged with this crime needs to speak to a local criminal defense attorney. These lawyers will not only be experienced with the relevant laws but will also have experience with area courts, prosecutors, as well as the procedures local police use when investigating DUI crimes. You need to speak to a local defense attorney as soon as you are charged with any DUI crime. If you delay even a short amount of time this can seriously affect your case and your ability to defend against the charges.

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