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What is a DUI / DWI and what are the penalties?

Compare the factors that contribute to a more severe sentence.


Fact checked

Whether your state refers to it as DUI, DWI, OMVI, OVI or DWAI, the definition is the same: operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs — including prescription medications — or alcohol. Driving while impaired is a crime in all 50 states.

If you’ve been convicted of driving while intoxicated, the penalties vary by state law, but some of the factors that influence punishment include whether you’re a first-time offender, your blood alcohol level and the severity of the circumstances.

What does DUI/DWI/OMVI/OVI/DWAI stand for?

  • DUI: Driving under intoxication
  • DWI: Driving while intoxicated
  • OMVI: Operating a motor vehicle impaired
  • OVI: Operating a vehicle impaired
  • DWAI: Driving while ability impaired

Penalties for a DUI

Sentences for a DUI vary widely depending on state laws and your personal situation. Some of the possible penalties you might encounter include:

  • Jail time and community service. A first offense with a low BAC will typically result in community service instead of jail time. But even with a first-offense DUI, if it’s classified as a felony — because of injury or death, for example — the sentence may be several years in jail. Depending on your state, a second offense typically comes with a mandatory minimum jail sentence.
  • Fines, penalties and fees. Count on plenty of hefty fines no matter your circumstances, which can be upwards of $5,000 or more.
  • Drug and alcohol education programs. Most states offer lesser penalties if you attend a drug and alcohol education program. In some states, an education course is mandatory.
  • Ignition interlock device. Multiple offenders may be ordered to have an ignition interlock device (IID) installed in their car. This is a breathalyzer for an individual’s car that disables the engine if the driver’s BAC isn’t below a certain level.
  • AA meetings. Court-ordered AA meetings may be required depending on your case.
  • Driver’s license. A DUI will affect your license and driving privileges. You can be assessed points, and have your license suspended or revoked, depending on how many times you’ve been convicted of a DUI and the severity of the offense.
  • Car insurance. A DUI will increase your insurance rates.
  • Limited job opportunities. You may be automatically disqualified from certain jobs, like a school bus driver, if you’ve been convicted of a DUI.

What factors affect the penalties for a DUI?

The penalties you’ll receive for a DUI depend largely on your situation. While certain factors will result in harsher penalties, some circumstances can work in your favor.

Factors that can negatively influence the severity of your sentence

  • BAC. The legal BAC or blood alcohol concentration limit, or blood alcohol level, is 0.08% in all 50 states. Driving with a BAC above 0.08% is illegal. Driving with a BAC of 0.2% or higher can result in harsher penalties. Circumstances like being under the legal drinking age, showing signs of impairment or being a commercial driver — can result in a conviction even if your BAC is below 0.08%.
  • Refusing a breathalyzer test. While the consequences of refusing a breathalyzer test vary by state, many automatically suspend your license for up to 12 months. They also take your unwillingness to cooperate into account during sentencing.
  • Injury. If you injured someone as a result of drinking and driving, the crime could increase from a misdemeanor to a felony. And if someone is killed because of driving while impaired, the driver can be charged with vehicular manslaughter or even vehicular homicide.
  • Prior convictions. If you have prior DUI convictions, most states impose harsher penalties.
  • Young passengers in the car. Drinking and driving with a child in the car or with someone who has special needs can result in tougher sentencing.
  • Suspended driver’s license. If you are caught drinking and driving with a suspended or revoked license, you may receive stricter penalties.
  • Speeding and reckless driving. Driving recklessly or speeding above a certain limit while under the influence can increase your sentence.

Factors that can positively influence your sentence

  • First-time offender. A first DUI conviction that did not cause an injury will most likely not result in jail time. Instead, you may serve time with an alternative work or community service program.
  • Safe driving. Driving safely and lawfully at the time of the incident, other than the DUI, will count in your favor.
  • Driving record. A safe driving record will help reduce the severity of your sentence.
  • Prescription medication. A judge will take into consideration if your impairment was caused by taking a lawfully prescribed amount of medication.

Ask an expert: Can I refuse a breathalyzer test?

Jim Yeargan

Former DUI prosecutor and founder of Yeargan & Kert, LLC

Many states have “implied consent” laws. These laws mean that by driving a car, you agree to take a breathalyzer if you’re stopped on suspicion of DUI. But many supreme courts are actually striking these implied consent laws down. Courts across the country have found that these laws are violations of fundamental rights and protections.

However, some states still have implied consent laws in place. In those states, refusing a breathalyzer can be used as evidence against you in court. Even in states without implied consent laws, refusing a breathalyzer can lead to license suspension and other administrative consequences. So, while state laws can’t strip you of your rights, they may be able to alter or reduce their overall effectiveness. Until courts step in, it’s important to be aware of the laws in the state in which you’re driving.

Can I get car insurance after a DUI?

You can still get car insurance after a DUI. You might be required to get SR-22 insurance, which is proof that you’re insured and following requirements to legally drive.

If your license is suspended, you might need to work with your local DMV to follow the steps to get your license reinstated before you can get insured.

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How much does a DUI cost?

The true cost of a DUI goes beyond the fines you’ll pay for being convicted. You could end up paying thousands of dollars for one DUI. Take a look at an example for how much you’d pay for a DUI in the state of Tennessee, one of the states on the harsher side for punishments.

According to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which oversees the Department of Motor Vehicles, you’ll pay anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 for a DUI. The initial fine ranges from $350 to $3,000 depending on the number of DUI convictions you’ve had. Then you factor in fines, car insurance rate increases, driver training, court costs and lost income.

Penalty Cost
Towing fee $75
Fine $350–3,000
Bail $125
Defense attorney $2,000
Court costs $200
License reinstatement fee $300
Insurance premium increase $2,000
IID installation $300
Alcohol education program $300
TOTAL $5,650–$8,650

Civil lawsuits

In addition to criminal charges for your DUI conviction, you could face a civil lawsuit — where individuals seek to recoup expenses resulting from the DUI. For example, someone could choose to sue you for physical or emotional damages caused by the incident.

How is a DWAI different from a DUI?

A DWAI means your driving is somewhat impaired, but not quite to the dangerous level of a DUI. For example, in the state of New York, it’s considered a DUI if your BAC is over 0.08% and a DWAI between 0.05% and 0.07%.

Driving under the influence could have much higher penalties than a DWAI, which is only considered a traffic infraction in many states. But both charges can lead to fines, a jail sentence and a suspended license.

If charged with a DUI, you might also be able to reduce the charge to a DWAI. Talk to a lawyer to find out your options.

Bottom line

Drinking and driving never mix, and there are very real consequences if you’re caught. Get a taxi, Lyft or — better yet — plan ahead and select a designated driver.

To protect you and your car from drunk drivers, compare car insurance to cover you for any situation on the road.

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