DUI Charges and Penalties

An overview of DUI (driving under the influence) offense classifications and possible consequences.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 1/03/2024

All states have laws prohibiting driving under the influence (DUI)—also called "DWI" (driving while intoxicated), "OUI" (operating under the influence), and "OWI" (operating while impaired)—of drugs and alcohol. Here are the basics of how the crime is defined and some of the possible penalties for a DUI conviction.

What Does "Driving Under the Influence" Mean?

DUI laws are aimed at preventing motorists from getting behind the wheel in an impaired state. And law enforcement officers in every state use similar tools to enforce DUI laws and detect impairment—things like DUI checkpoints, field sobriety tests (FSTs), breathalyzers, and blood tests. But when it comes to how impairment is defined, there are commonalities and differences among the states.

DUI Laws Apply to Drug and Alcohol Use

Generally, DUI laws apply whether the driver's impairment was due to alcohol or some other substance. So, you can be charged with DUI for driving while under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two. And it typically doesn't matter if the drug ingested was illegal, over-the-counter medication, or prescribed by a doctor—if the motorist was impaired, lawful use generally isn't a defense to DUI charges.

How "Per Se" DUI Laws Work

All states have "per se" DUI laws. Generally, these laws make it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more. The only exception is Utah, which currently has a per se limit of .05%.

Some states also have drug per se DUI laws. In states that have these laws, motorists can be convicted of DUI for having a certain amount of drugs in their bodies. Per se drug DUI laws typically apply only to illegal drug use. So, if you have a prescription for a medication, you can be convicted of DUI only if you're actually impaired.

With per se DUI laws, the prosecution just needs to prove the driver had an illegal amount of alcohol or drugs in their system. Proving actual impairment, drunkenness, or intoxication isn't necessary.

DUI Charges Based on Actual Impairment or Intoxication

DUI laws in every jurisdiction also prohibit driving while impaired by alcohol, drugs, or other intoxicating substances. However, impairment DUI laws differ in how they define impairment. In some states, a driver is considered impaired if affected even to the slightest degree by drugs or alcohol. But in other states, the alcohol or drugs ingested must have a substantial effect for the motorist to be guilty of DUI.

What Are the Penalties for a DUI Conviction?

Depending on the circumstances, a DUI can be either a misdemeanor or felony—meaning the potential penalties will differ significantly based on the facts 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 and Jail for DUI Convictions

It's very common for someone convicted of a DUI to have to serve at least some time in jail. Misdemeanor charges generally 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 DUI.

Although an offender doesn't always end up spending time in jail for a first offense, when an offender has prior convictions, jail time becomes more likely.

DUI Fines and Fees

A DUI conviction always carries fines and fees. Fine amounts differ widely, ranging from a few hundred dollars for first-time misdemeanor convictions to up to $10,000 or more for a felony conviction.

In addition to fines, the driver will normally have to pay various fines for things like education programs, license reinstatement, and court costs.

DUI Probation

In many DUI cases, the judge sentences the offender to complete a term of probation. Probation usually lasts at least 12 months, but terms of probation 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. Probation conditions differ but might involve meeting regularly with a probation officer, agreeing to submit to random drug and alcohol testing, completing a substance abuse program, and not committing crimes or drunk driving offenses during probation.

License Suspensions and Revocations for DUI Arrests and Convictions

DUI charges will almost always lead to some period of license suspension or revocation.

Administrative DUI License Suspensions

A DUI arrest—even if you're never convicted in criminal court—often leads to an administrative license suspension that comes directly from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Depending on the circumstances, administrative suspensions typically range from three months to several years.

DUI Conviction Suspensions and Revocations

And if you are ultimately convicted of DUI in court, the judge will likely impose a license suspension or revocation of about the same length. However, the suspensions and revocations are often allowed to overlap—meaning the motorist doesn't have to complete the cumulative total of the two suspensions.

Getting a DUI Restricted License

Most states also allow motorists to apply for a "restricted" or "hardship" license to drive to and from places like work and school during the suspension period.

Is Boating Under the Influence a Crime?

Yes. Operating any vehicle under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicants is dangerous, which is why all states have not only drunk driving laws but also drunk boating laws.

BUI Charges

Boating under the influence (BUI) laws generally prohibit the operation of any motor-powered watercraft (such as a speedboat or jet ski) while under the influence of an intoxicant. Similar to DUI charges, a person can get a BUI based on their BAC or actual impairment. In some states, a BUI is the same as a DUI. Basically, motorized watercraft are considered "vehicles." Other states have separate BUI and DUI laws and penalties.

BUI Penalties

A BUI conviction will typically carry fines, jail or prison time, and restrictions on the ability to operate a watercraft. The circumstances of each case, as well as the laws of the state in which it is charged, will determine whether the crime is a misdemeanor or felony, as well as what penalties are possible. A state's DUI penalties may apply, or it might have separate BUI penalties.

What Happens If a Minor Gets a DUI?

All states have underage DUI or "zero-tolerance" laws that apply to drivers who are under the age of 21. Generally, these laws prohibit these underage drivers from operating a vehicle with a BAC of .02% or more (though some states prohibit any measurable amount).

Underage DUI violations typically lead to license suspension, fines or fees, and possibly jail time or community service.

    DUI Laws by State

    Each state has its own specific laws and penalties for driving under the influence. Learn more about the DUI laws in your state at DrivingLaws.org.

    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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