And the factors that contribute to a more severe sentence.
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 factors that influence the punishment include whether you’re a first-time offender, your blood alcohol level and the severity of the circumstances. For example, if children were in the car or if someone was injured.
What do 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
What factors affect the penalties for DUI?
The penalties you’ll receive for DUI depend largely on your personal situation. Did you refuse a breathalyzer test? Did you cause an accident that resulted in injury or even death? Are you a multiple offender? These things will result in harsher penalties. But there are also circumstances that can work in your favor.
Factors that can negatively influence the severity of your sentence
- BAC: The legal BAC or blood alcohol concentration limit (often referred to as blood alcohol level) in all 50 states is 0.08%. Driving with a BAC above 0.08% is illegal. Driving with a particularly high BAC, usually 0.20% or greater, will result in harsher penalties. There are a few exceptions: If you’re a commercial driver, anything above 0.04% can result in a DUI conviction. And if you are caught drinking and driving while under 21, all states impose zero tolerance laws. Any amount of alcohol can result in a DUI conviction. Keep in mind that you can still be convicted of DUI with a BAC below 0.08% if you show signs of impairment.
- 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 can 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 enhanced penalties.
- Young passengers in car: Drinking and driving with a child in the car or with someone who has special needs can result in a harsher sentence.
- 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 affect 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’ll likely serve time doing an alternative work or community service program.
- Safe driving: Driving safe 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.
Penalties for DUI
Sentences for 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 doesn’t typically result in jail time (although it’s not unheard of). What you can expect is to get community service. But even with a first-offense DUI, if it is 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 installed in their car. This is a breathalyzer for an individual’s car that disables the engine if the driver’s BAC is not 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 your 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 conviction will likely trigger your insurance rates to rise.
- Limited job opportunities: You may be automatically disqualified from certain jobs, like a school bus driver, if you’ve been convicted of a DUI.
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 (blood alcohol content) is over .08, and a DWAI between .05 and .07.
Driving under the influence could have much higher penalties than a DWAI, which is only considered a traffic infraction in many states. Both charges can lead to fines, a jail sentence and a suspended license. For example, in Colorado, a DWAI could lead to fines up to $500 and two to 180 days of jail time, while the charges for a DUI could be as much as $1,000 in fines with jail time of five days to a year and 96 hours of community service.
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.
As always, don’t get behind the wheel of a car if you’ve been drinking. Get a taxi or an Uber, or, better yet, plan ahead and select a designated driver.