Drunk and Impaired Driving Offenses

What Constitutes "Drunk Driving"?

Drunk driving occurs when a person is driving an automobile, after consuming alcoholic beverages to the extent that his ability to drive a motor vehicle is impaired. Drunk driving can be called by a number of different names or abbreviations, depending upon what state you are in. Common names are "Driving While Impaired" (DWI), "Driving Under the Influence" (DUI), or "Operating a motor vehicle while Under the Influence of intoxicating Liquor" (OUIL).

Can I Be Charged With Drunk Driving, Even If My Driving Is Perfect?

Yes, it is possible to be charged with drunk driving based solely on the measurement of alcohol in your breath, blood or urine. Many people charged with drunk driving protest that their driving was fine. They believe either that the officer made up an excuse to pull them over, or that the "mistake" that the officer observed was appropriate or had nothing to do with their driving.

Each state imposes a maximum permissible blood alcohol content (BAC) for drivers, and you can be considered legally impaired even if you do not feel that you are in any way affected by the alcohol you consumed. The legal limit for blood alcohol is normally 0.08%, although drunk driving charges are often possible based upon your driving conduct even at a lower BAC.

You may be stopped because there is a mechanical problem with your motor vehicle or after an accident. If the officer finds you to appear intoxicated (usual signs: slurred speech, glassy or bloodshot eyes, poor balance, conspicuous odor of alcohol, lack of coordination, difficulty comprehending instructions, clumsiness or lack of coordination, combativeness, and disorientation), he may investigate further for evidence of intoxication even if the traffic stop had nothing to do with your driving conduct.

What Do They Mean By "Per Se" In A Criminal Charge?

A per se impaired driving charge allows a conviction for drunk driving based solely upon a driver's blood alcohol content, without the need for further evidence that the defendant's ability to drive was impaired as a result of intoxication. A per se offense can only be charged if your blood alcohol content is known.

Can I Represent Myself Against Drunk Driving Charges?

Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to try to represent yourself against any criminal charges. Drunk driving may seem like a relatively minor offense, but it is in fact one of the more complicated criminal charges for prosecutors to bring. There are many technical defenses that an attorney may be able to raise, to assist you either in avoiding conviction, negotiating a lesser charge, or in reducing the consequences of conviction.

What Are The Penalties For Drunk Driving?

The punishments vary significantly from state to state. All drunk driving offenses carry potential jail sentences. However, most first offenders are given lesser punishments, such as driver's license restrictions, fines, mandatory attendance of drunk driver's education classes, mandatory attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or alcohol counseling, community service, or probation. Please note that some jurisdictions sentence all drunk drivers to jail, although the term may be very short (e.g., one weekend) for a first offender.

Sometimes, a drunk driver will be required to install an "ignition interlock" device on his car, requiring him to pass a breath test in order to start the ignition. Some states will immobilize or impound the drunk driver's car. Some drunk drivers also have a breath testing device installed in their homes, and have to submit to random tests on that device when called by their probation officers. Some states have forfeiture statutes, which may allow them to take away your car as the result of a drunk driving conviction. Some states will impose higher sentences on people who, for example, are driving drunk while transporting children, whose blood alcohol content is exceptionally high, or who were driving in a particularly reckless or dangerous manner while impaired.

Habitual drunk drivers face more severe sanctions, such as driver's license revocation, incarceration, and larger fines. It is common for people to be sentenced to jail for a second drunk driving conviction. Some states impose very serious penalties on habitual drunk drivers, including potential felony charges that carry possible prison terms. For example, in Michigan, the crime of "OUIL 3rd" is a felony offense, punishable by up to five years incarceration.

Impaired driving charges involving the use of illicit drugs often carry more serious penalties than alcohol-related drunk driving charges, and may even be felony charges for first offense violations.

What If I Injure Or Kill Someone While Driving Drunk?

This is a very real possibility - drunk drivers cause a lot of accidents. Many states make it a felony offense to cause a serious bodily injury as the result of a drunk driving accident. Many states also have specific felony statutes for "drunk driving causing death" - where, if the state can prove that the driver's intoxication was the cause of an accident, the driver can face a very long prison term. Drunk driving causing death can also result in manslaughter or "second degree murder" prosecution.

If you injure or kill somebody, you will also most likely be sued by that person or his family. You should note that damages you cause to people as a result of drunkenness are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. You should also be aware that some states will not allow you to have a driver's license until you satisfy (i.e., pay off) a judgment against you, for injuries you cause in an automobile accident.

Copyright © 2000 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 26, 2016.