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Because driving under the influence is an entirely too common (and often deadly) occurrence in our country, it's important to understand some basic facts about just how dangerous it is, and what you can face if you drive impaired.

DUI & DWI Basics

What do DUI & DWI mean?

Both DUI and DWI are acronyms. “DUI" stands for “driving under the influence" and “DWI" stands for “driving while intoxicated" (or sometimes, “driving while impaired").

While DUI and DWI are the most common ways to refer to drunk or impaired driving, some states use other terms, such as “operating under the influence" (OUI), “operating while intoxicated" (OWI), and “driving while ability impaired" (DWAI).

What is a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) percentage?

Extremely simply put, a person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC)—sometimes referred to as blood alcohol content or just blood alcohol level—is a measurement of how much alcohol is in a person's system.

Most commonly, states use breathalyzers and/or blood tests to determine a person's BAC; urine tests are still available, but many states are eliminating them due to unreliability.

Currently, each state has set the criminal blood alcohol level at or above 0.08%; however, that doesn't mean alcohol won't start affecting you before you reach that point.

Also, this percentage (or even “zero tolerance") can vary depending on extenuating factors such as the driver's age and any ongoing penalties the driver might be serving already.

How do drugs relate to DUI?

Whether they're illegal drugs, prescription medicines, or over-the-counter (OTC) medications, drugs can impair your ability to drive by producing a number of side effects, such as:

  • Delayed reaction times.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Dizziness or fainting.
  • Sleepiness.
  • Inability to focus.
  • Nausea.
  • Tremors.
  • Delusion and hallucinations.

Unlike with alcohol levels, currently no standardized limit for drug impairment exists; however, that does not make drug-impaired driving legal.

Why is impaired driving so dangerous?

Alcohol and drugs can impair you mentally, emotionally, and physically (take a look at some of the side effects listed above), which makes it difficult for you to concentrate on driving safely. By driving under the influence, not only do you put your life at risk, but also the lives of others.

DUI Arrests & Penalties

What is a DUI checkpoint?

Also known as a sobriety checkpoint, a DUI checkpoint is a designated location at which law enforcement officers stop and check drivers for signs of alcohol or drug impairment.

DUI checkpoint laws vary by state. Some states use them as part of statewide programs to deter impaired driving; others avoid them altogether. Refer to your State Highway Safety Office to learn more about the legality and use of DUI checkpoints in your state.

What happens if I'm arrested for DUI?

The exact legal process will vary depending on your jurisdiction's laws, and possibly your specific situation.

However, after an officer has pulled you over and determined you're driving under the influence (generally using field sobriety tests, chemical tests, or both), you can expect to:

  • Have your vehicle impounded.
  • Be taken into custody.
    • At this point, you will be “booked" for driving under the influence.
    • Custody length varies. Sometimes it's until you can get a ride or sober up; other times it's until you can go before a judicial officer such as a magistrate and have an arraignment.
    • You might have to pay a bail or bond before being released.
  • Have your license temporarily suspended or receive temporary driving privileges.
    • Until your official trial determines your exact penalties.
  • Have your official trial scheduled.
  • Be assigned a court-appointed attorney (also known as a public defender) or hire your own private DUI lawyer.

Once that's all said and done, you'll attend your official hearing and receive your judgment and any associated penalties.

What are common DUI penalties?

DUI penalties vary based on a number of factors such as state laws, the severity of the offense, and whether you've had prior DUI convictions.

However, some of the most common DUI penalties include:

  • Hefty fines.
    • License suspension or revocation.
    • You'll acquire driving record points.
    • Your conviction will remain your driving record for a certain time period.
  • Installation of an ignition interlock device.
    • Typically, these are out-of-pocket expenses for you.
  • Alcohol and/or drug counseling programs.
  • Jail time.

Can I lose my driver's license forever?

Driver's license suspension or revocation is a common DUI penalty; though, like other penalties, the length varies based on state laws, offense severity, and prior convictions.

However, it is possible to lose your driving privileges for life. Generally, states that impose such laws reserve them for offenders who have been convicted of driving under the influence many times or who have committed a particularly heinous felony offense.

Is DUI a misdemeanor or felony charge?

Whether your DUI conviction is a misdemeanor or felony depends on your state laws and the circumstances surrounding the offense.

Generally, misdemeanor charges are your basic DUI offenses. Generally, a conviction is a misdemeanor when:

  • Your BAC isn't too much over the legal limit.
  • There was no personal injury or death involved.
  • You don't have prior convictions.

On the other hand, felony DUI often involves:

  • High BAC.
  • A child passenger.
  • A personal injury or death.
  • Prior convictions.
  • Driving while your license is already suspended or revoked.

Needless to say, a felony DUI conviction carries much harsher penalties than does a misdemeanor charge.

DUI & Your Records

Do I get a criminal record for a DUI?

Yes. Driving under the influence is a criminal offense; therefore, it goes on your criminal record.

Depending on your state's laws and the specific circumstances, you might be able to have your record expunged.

How long will a DUI stay on my driving record?

Once again, this depends on your state laws, as well as whether the conviction was a misdemeanor or felony.

Understand that—mostly in cases of felony convictions—some states keep the conviction on your record for life.

Does a DUI conviction show up on a background check?

Typically, yes; however, it can depend on how thorough the background check is and how far back the check goes.

Keep in might that criminal background checks—which focus more on criminal convictions than do regular background checks—might always show your DUI conviction (unless your record has been expunged).

Will a DUI affect my car insurance?

Yes. Once you've been convicted of driving under the influence, your car insurance provider will view you as a “high risk" driver and typically either will increase your rates or disqualify you from renewing your policy.

Also, you might have to file SR-22 or FR-44 forms. Neither is a type of car insurance—rather:

  • SR-22 proves you've purchased your state's car insurance requirements and that you keep the coverage for a specific amount of time.
  • FR-44 requires you to purchase car insurance limits higher than your state's minimum requirements.

Most states use SR-22, but your judge will inform you about your requirements. For more, check out our guide to the SR-22 form.

Should I hire a DUI lawyer?

Yes, you should absolutely hire a DUI lawyer.

Whether your charge is a misdemeanor or felony, it will bring serious penalties related to both your driving privileges and personal life. For example, not only will you face license suspension or revocation, but also a criminal record.

An experienced DUI attorney is extremely skilled in your jurisdiction's driving under the influence laws and can be represent you in court. Also, because of that experience, he or she might even be able to lessen some of your penalties.

However, if you can't afford to private attorney, the court will appoint you a public defender (see below).

What if I can't afford my own attorney?

Typically, if you can't afford to hire your own attorney, the court will court appoint you a public defender, free of charge.

Because public defenders generally have a much heavier workload than private lawyers, make sure to regularly stay in touch with your public defender for updates and to find out what you can do to help.

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