Nearly 80% of U.S. motorists consider driving under the influence of alcohol a severe problem. Despite this concern, in 2020, drivers tested positive for alcohol or drugs in 56% of U.S. vehicular incidents leading to injury or death.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 32 people die every 45 minutes due to drunk driving. Moreover, driving under the influence (DUI) accounts for 10% of all criminal arrests nationwide.
Being stopped by the police due to DUI is an unpleasant and inconvenient experience. These flag downs may result in steep fees or fines, suspension or revocation of your license, mandatory DUI classes, and even jail time.
How can you avoid going to jail for DUI, and what are the legal remedies for DUI convictions?
This article will give you an overview of what to expect from a DUI conviction. You will also discover how law firms can help and what legal steps you can take to avoid jail time.
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Do All DUI Convictions Require Jail Time?
Incarceration for a first-offense DUI, which most states consider a misdemeanor, can run for one to two days or up to 2.5 years. The duration depends on the laws in your state and the circumstances surrounding your case.
In California, first-time DUI offenders may be in jail for up to 90 days.
Meanwhile, in some states like Florida and Massachusetts, incarceration is not mandatory on the first offense if no one was killed or injured. Jail time depends on one’s circumstances but is unlikely if you have a clean criminal record.
It is also possible for first-time DUI offenders in Pennsylvania to not go to jail. However, some unavoidable penalties include fines, license suspension, probation, and mandatory drug or alcohol treatment program.
Going after a non-jail penalty is possible if no injury, death, or other aggravating factors are involved in your DUI case.
Judges may also decide that offenders serve their sentences outside of jail, such as in a substance treatment facility, house arrest, or community service. This principle applies to DUI offenders in California.
Understanding Why Jail Time Seems Mandatory for a DUI
The effectiveness of incarceration as a deterrent against drunk driving continues to be debatable.
Some sectors uphold the necessity of jail time to keep offenders accountable. One of those sectors is the Niskanen Center, which supports swift but fair and firm sanctions.
Part of the center’s 24/7 Sobriety program is a call for short jail stays of one to two days. Niskanen believes that stiffer punishments and pardoning failed tests may only encourage rule-breaking.
Meanwhile, groups like the American Addiction Centers and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers say prevention and technology are more effective at keeping drunken drivers off public roads.
These two groups promote the installation of sobriety checkpoints and ignition interlock devices (IIDs).
An IID is a device you install into your car’s ignition system. Then you need to breathe into the device to start the vehicle. Your ignition system will successfully operate when the IID does not detect alcohol in your breath.
Can I Avoid Jail Time by Pleading Guilty to a DUI?
When you plead guilty to a DUI case, you admit that driving a vehicle at a particular drug or alcohol level impaired your performance behind the wheel.
A guilty plea also means you no longer choose to contest your conviction in court. This action can lower your penalties compared to going on trial and being declared guilty by a jury.
However, criminal defense attorneys recommend that DUI offenders enter a “no contest” plea instead of a “not guilty plea.”
By “no contest,” you are not admitting to any wrongdoing but are accepting punishment without fighting the charges. With this type of plea, the court will still sentence you as if you pleaded guilty to the DUI charge.
However, this plea will deprive a third party of having additional evidence with which to file a lawsuit, mainly if you injure someone while driving. Pleading no contest will allow you to hide details of your case from public records.
Still, a no contest plea cannot help against third-party lawsuits if the offender has already received a felony charge due to injury or death.
What Increases DUI Jail Sentences?
Several factors can increase your possibility of going to jail for a DUI.
Your prison sentence can be longer if more of these factors are present in your case:
- Having a high blood alcohol concentration (BAC). A driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter (g/dl) or higher is considered drug- or alcohol-impaired in all states except Utah, where the standard is lower at 0.05g/dl.
- Refusing to undergo a blood test or breath test or resisting arrest
- Driving at a high speed
- Having children in your vehicle
- Having prior DUI convictions and more than one pending DWI (driving while intoxicated or impaired)
- Having a suspended or revoked license due to a previous impaired driving offense
- Using a fake identification
- Causing serious injury to another person due to the incident
- Damaging property during the incident
Can You Go to Jail for DUI Even if You Were Sober?
You can still face a DUI arrest in some states, such as South Carolina, as convictions for such cases depend on “material and appreciable impairment.”
This means that one can get arrested under the following conditions due to their semblance of drug or alcohol intoxication:
- Showing signs of exhaustion due to lack of sleep
- Experiencing tremors or balance issues because of a medical condition
- Experiencing disorientation or confusion due to a mental condition
- Having foul mouth odor because of diabetes
- Lacking English language skills
However, false arrests can happen. If you are in this situation, you need to hire a DUI defense attorney for legal advice and help to contest the conviction in court.
When Are You Legally Intoxicated?
Alcohol tolerance levels are unique to all individuals. However, under the law, you are legally intoxicated when your BAC is equal to or greater than 0.08%.
The percentage means that every 100 milliliters of blood in your body contains 0.08 grams of alcohol.
The legal limit for driving commercial vehicles, or those with a gross weight of over 26,000 pounds, is lower at 0.04%.
How Many DUI Can You Get in the U.S.?
People can be arrested for a DUI for the third or fourth time before facing felony charges, resulting in more severe DUI penalties, including mandatory jail or prison time.
In California, you can be charged with a felony with four or more past DUI convictions within a decade.
If your last DUI conviction occurred 10 years ago, the state’s authorities would consider a new offense like it was the first offense.
Would a Second or Third Subsequent DUI Require Mandatory Jail Time?
The number of prior convictions dramatically affects one’s DUI penalties. Thus, nearly all second-offense DUI cases have a minimum jail sentence.
Jail and Prison Time: Do You Go to Jail for a DUI in the U.S.?
You can face jail or prison time for a DUI conviction, depending on whether there were aggravating factors such as injury, death, or property damage.
Jail vs. Prison in a DUI Case
The court will typically declare a DUI case a misdemeanor if no aggravating factors exist. Misdemeanor offenders can receive jail sentences.
Meanwhile, a DUI can become a felony, depending on your state’s DUI laws. These laws cover BAC limits, the number of prior convictions, bodily injuries to another person, the presence of a minor passenger, and the status of one’s license.
Felony convictions can result in jail or prison sentences lasting for a year or more.
How Much Does a DUI Cost in the U.S?
The cost of a DUI ticket can range from $10,000 to $30,000 when you include fees and fines. The total cost also depends on your location.
In California, the minimum cost of receiving a DUI conviction is around $10,000 and may reach $18,000 for third-time offenders.
Who Decides How Much Jail Time You Get?
The court decides the penalties for DUI cases. The judge will stay within the guidelines for minimum and maximum sentences.
The prosecutor decides whether to file criminal charges, which leads to a court hearing. However, defendants can enter an agreement (called a plea bargain) with the prosecutor by pleading guilty or no contest to the DUI charge.
These agreements allow the prosecutor to grant concessions, including requesting a minimum sentence and reducing or dropping charges.
How Long Can They Hold You for a DUI in the U.S.?
Jail time for DUI cases depends on the circumstances at the time of your arrest and your location, such as if you are in California.
However, under standard procedure, police officers conduct a roadside sobriety test for DUI offenders after asking them to pull over.
The officer may arrest the person and bring them to the police station for a chemical test, including blood, urine, and breathalyzer exams. DUI offenders will also surrender their driver’s license and get a temporary one.
The authorities will typically get the offender’s fingerprints and contact details after the tests at the police station and before booking them in jail until their BAC goes down to a certain amount.
The officer may tell the offender to post bail before the police release them from jail. The offender can go on the premise that there are no aggravating factors and that they will appear on the mandatory court dates.
Judges can order a DUI offender to serve in a work release program and credit it toward their jail time, especially for nonviolent convictions.
Individuals granted work release will wear electronic monitors during their community service activities. These activities include collecting highway trash, cleaning graffiti, or helping the elderly with yard work.
Earned Early Release or “Good Time Credit”
Good behavior during one’s confinement in jail or prison can also convince the court to grant a DUI offender early release.
Credits are at the discretion of correctional facilities and will depend on whether the offender has a DUI misdemeanor or felony conviction.
For example, correctional facilities typically grant day-to-day credits for low-level felonies and misdemeanors. However, it may take three days or more to earn a one-day credit off your sentence for felonies.
Are There Alternatives to Jail in DUI Cases?
Besides work release programs, other alternatives to jail time for DUI convictions include:
- House arrest: People under house arrest can go to work or attend school, but they return home by their designated curfew. Offenders also need to wear electronic monitors.
- Work furlough: DUI offenders can continue working in the daytime but must stay at their designated correctional facilities at night.
- Alcohol or drug rehabilitation: Authorities will deem a defendant to have a lower recidivism risk when they attend a recovery program.
- Sober living homes: Sober living homes are not medical facilities but more like residential communities where dwellers follow complete abstinence from alcohol and drugs.
Fight to Avoid Jail Time: Is It Worth Fighting a DUI?
You can hire a DUI attorney to refute aspects of your arrest process or to lower your penalties. Some of the possible grounds include:
- Lack of probable cause
- Flawed testing due to one’s physical condition, such as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), diabetes, or low-carb diets. These factors can lead to the production of ketones that convert into “mouth alcohol.”
When your body fails to get proper nourishment due to overdrinking alcohol, your system may produce ketones. These acidic chemicals burn fat cells to provide energy for your body.
- Lack of evidence that you were operating or in control of your vehicle when approached by the officer
- Constitutional violations including an officer who failed to read you your Miranda rights
Does a DUI Ruin Your Life?
A DUI charge can burden you financially due to having to pay higher auto insurance and losing eligibility for some loans.
Having a criminal record can also make it hard for you to enter university or secure a school scholarship, job, or housing.
A DUI conviction can also affect your relationships with your immediate family and loved ones, especially if the charge puts you in jail or prison.
DUI/DWI Penalties in the U.S.
Penalties imposed by the court will depend on the establishment of guilt in violating local DUI laws.
Punishments differ according to how often you faced arrests for DUI.
First-Offense DUI Convictions
First-time DUI or DWI offenses fall under misdemeanors, which typically carry a jail term of six to 12 months.
However, some states do not have a minimum jail time for first-offense DUI or have a minimum time of 24 hours. Fines can cost at least $100.
Repeat Offenses: Second and Subsequent DUI Convictions
The mandatory minimum jail sentence for second DUI offenses is usually longer than for first offenses—from five days to a year.
Driver’s License Suspension and Ignition Interlocks
Authorities hope to reduce repeat DUI offenses by suspending an offender’s driver’s license for a certain period. State regulations will dictate the timing of the release of limited permits.
Moreover, some states require offenders to attach IIDs to their vehicles. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) requires offenders to report results.
License Suspension (First DUI Conviction Within 5 Years)
In states like Georgia, the local government can suspend one’s driver’s license for up to 12 months.
License Suspension (Second DUI Conviction Within 5 Years)
In some cases, you cannot use your license for up to three years when you get a second DUI conviction.
Administrative License Suspension Action
States allow the DMV to take administrative license suspension action. This action refers to suspending a driver’s license right after their arrest when they hit the BAC limit or refuse to undergo testing.
License Revocation (Third Offense Within 5 Years)
The state declares a motorist as a habitual offender on their third offense. Such drivers will have their license suspended for five years.
Alternative Forms of Punishment
A DUI attorney can assist offenders with seeking a penalty other than a jail sentence. The defendant can serve these alternative penalties outside a correctional facility.
Serving Your Jail Sentence Outside of a Jail
Incarceration alternatives include participating in a work release or drug or alcohol treatment program, undergoing house arrest or work furlough, doing community service, and staying at a sober living home.
Other Consequences of a DUI Conviction
Certain conditions can raise the cost or severity of one’s DUI/DWI penalties. These include drunk driving with a child passenger or with an open container.
Drunk Driving With a Child Passenger
The presence of a minor in one’s vehicle at the time of the DUI offense can result in a child endangerment charge.
State laws specify the penalties for endangerment, including an additional fine on top of the regular fine, license suspension, and a jail term.
Driving With an Open Container
An open container violation considers it illegal to have an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle while on a public road or highway.
Many states give an exception for motorists transporting an open container of liquor from a restaurant. However, drivers also have to store these containers in an area not accessible to the passengers or themselves.
Aggravating Circumstances and Felony DUIs
Aside from child endangerment and open container violations, certain circumstances—which we have listed earlier in this article as aggravating factors—can lead to more severe DUI penalties.
A third DUI offense or higher and serious bodily harm or at least one fatality can turn a first-time DUI into a felony.
DUI Sentence Enhancements
Sentence enhancements refer to additional penalties that the court may impose on offenders when aggravating factors surround their DUI case.
Underage DUI offenders are below 21 years old. Under the Zero Tolerance laws, underage drivers can get DUI convictions with a lower BAC of 0.01% to 0.02%.
While young DUI offenders will not face incarceration, the state can suspend their driver’s licenses and order them to pay fines.
What Else Determines if You Have to Go to Jail After a DUI Sentencing?
Other than state-specific laws, road safety at the site of one’s DUI offense and the position of the local judge on DUI arrests can determine whether you will end up in jail.
A seasoned DUI lawyer can eliminate your jail sentence—or at least reduce it to reckless driving—and return your driving privileges as soon as possible.
- Road Safety Monitors – National Opinion Polls on Alcohol-Impaired Driving in the United States
- Drug-Impaired Driving
- DUI Statistics and Trends: 2022 Annual Report
- Differences Between Jail Sentences and Jail Terms Actually Served Among DUI Offenders in Selected California Counties
- Drunk Driving
- Impaired Driving Laws, Enforcement and Prevention
- How Many Drinks Does it Take to Reach 0.08% BAC?
- Driving Under the Influence