The daily fatality rate related to accidents caused by drunk drivers is staggering. As such, DUI is one of the most heinous driving-related crimes a person can commit, but it's still entirely too common.
So, aside from the extreme penalties you'll face, what happens if you're arrested for driving under the influence?
Beginning: The Traffic Stop
All DUI arrests start with traffic stops.
Sometimes these are routine traffic stops due to a broken taillight or because the officer notices suspicious and erratic driving behavior.
Other times, these traffic stops are actual DUI checkpoints. Also known as a sobriety checkpoint, a DUI checkpoint is a location where law enforcement officers are positioned to check drivers for signs of alcohol or drug impairment. State laws vary on DUI checkpoints; many use them as part of their drunk driving deterrence programs; others avoid them. You can learn more about the legality and use of DUI checkpoints in your state from your State Highway Safety Office.
When an officer determines a driver is showing signs of intoxication, he or she will administer a variety of impairment-related tests.
Field Sobriety Tests
Generally, field sobriety tests are the first tests officers will administer. A field sobriety test helps the officer evaluate your condition before determining how (or if) to move forward with a DUI arrest.
During a field sobriety test, the officer might:
- Ask you to walk a straight line, generally heel-to-toe and often while counting.
- Officers consider an inability to balance, having to use your arms for stability, and stepping out of line just a few of the several cues of possible impairment.
- Ask you to stand on one foot while counting to a certain number.
- This tests whether you can balance while also focusing on another task (counting).
- Officers consider wobbling or hopping, using your arms, and putting your foot down as signs of possible impairment.
- Conduct a horizontal gaze nystagmus.
- During this test, the officer asks you to move your eyes back and forth while looking at another object, such as a stick or flashlight. This shows whether your eyes are properly tracking the object in front of you.
While field sobriety tests help law enforcement officers during the initial evaluation phase, chemical tests provide measurable data.
Chemical tests include breath tests, blood tests, and urine tests:
- A breath test consists of using a portable breathalyzer; sometimes, officers conduct breath tests both during the traffic stop and after bringing you to the station.
- Generally, a blood test is administered at a hospital or other medical facility.
- Some states no longer use urine tests due to reliability issues.
Unlike field sobriety tests, chemical tests can check your blood alcohol concentration (BAC); currently, the criminal level regarding driving is 0.08% in every state.
Implied Consent Laws
The term “implied consent” means that, as part of earning your driver's license, you've given your consent to take these tests when a law enforcement officer determines the situation is appropriate.
Of course, you can refuse to take the tests; however, refusing the tests often brings consequences similar to DUI conviction penalties. Exact penalties vary by state, but the most common is license suspension—and, sometimes, the suspension period is even longer than what you face if convicted of DUI. Keep in mind; these penalties are separate from those you might face from the court.
A number of events occur during a DUI arrest, many of which are based on state laws and the severity of the situation. However, you can expect some variation of the following events.
Your vehicle will be impounded, which means it will be towed to a designated location until you're legally allowed to retrieve it.
The arresting officer will take you into custody, at which point a number of events can occur.
You will be “booked,” which means the officer will:
- Document your name and the crime with which you are charged.
- Crime documentation will include details about the arrest, including the events leading up to, during, and after it.
- Take your photograph, or “mug shot.”
- Collect your fingerprints.
- Conduct a personal search and confiscate certain personal items such as your purse or wallet, keys, and cell phone.
- Typically, you'll get these items back upon your release.
How long you remain in custody depends on factors such as jurisdiction laws and your personal situation. For example, you might be released if a family member or friend agrees to pick you up; on the other hand, you might be held until you're sober.
You might have to stay in custody until you have an arraignment or other type of administrative hearing. Generally, these are conducted by magistrates or other similar judicial officers and don't take long; however, if you're taken into custody on a weekend or at night (and there's no judicial officer working these hours), you might have to wait until working hours resume.
If your jurisdiction's laws and/or your personal situation require an arraignment before your release, that arraignment might include setting a bail or bond for your release and even temporarily suspending your license or issuing you temporary license privileges until more permanent penalties are issued.
If you aren't required to attend an arraignment before custody release, do expect one to be scheduled at a later date.
Court Hearing or Trial
After you've been taken into custody, booked, and attended an arraignment, it's time for your hearing or trial.
Court officials will set your court date, and it's common for them to assign you a court-appointed lawyer—also known as a public defender—but you do have the option to decline and hire your own attorney.
Barring any extenuating circumstances (such as a personal injury or death that resulted from the drunk driving offense), your DUI hearing should be fairly straightforward. Basically, the arresting officer will present his or her evidence (including your test results) and your attorney will represent you.
After examining the evidence and taking into consideration your lawyer's representation, the judge will determine whether you're guilty and, if so, hand down your penalties. Naturally, these vary by state, but common consequences include hefty fines, license suspension, and mandatory DUI classes. Some extreme cases even require jail time.
NOTE: Dealing with administrative penalties for DUI is different than handling court cases. See our Admin Per Se page for more information.
Hiring a DUI Lawyer
Unless your financial situation is stressed (in which case, you can take advantage of a court-appointed attorney), it's best to hire a DUI lawyer.
A skilled DUI attorney—especially one based in your area—has experience representing clients who've been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Because the lawyer is familiar with your jurisdiction's DUI laws, he or she can successfully represent you in court and, depending on the severity of the situation, possibly convince the judge to lessen some of your penalties.