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Is a DUI a Criminal Offense?

Every year, the police stop and arrest more than one million Americans for driving under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicating substances. While each state deals with DUI violations differently, the problem is common nationwide.

If you are charged with driving under the influence, the true DUI cost goes beyond the initial bail money, attorney fees, and other related expenses. To clarify, offenders will struggle to find a job, residence, and other necessities if they have a DUI charge on their record. Moreover, the different state laws that regulate intoxicated driving add another layer of confusion.

Having said all that, there a certain factors that determine whether or not a DUI becomes a criminal offense. Firstly, the seriousness of this charge depends on the state that an offender committed it in. Equally as important, the law takes into consideration the amount of alcohol that a driver consumed and if other substances are involved. Your criminal and driving history matter, too.

Nonetheless, perhaps most importantly, many people can fight in court and have their DUI dropped to a less serious offense. This includes first-time violators and those who face criminal charges, alike.

DUIs: What You Need to Know

States began introducing intoxicated driving laws in the early 1900s. However, this movement intensified during the 1970s onwards. Moreover, after several states legalized recreational marijuana, combating DUIs became an even more important priority.

Before we answer the questions ‘Is a DUI a criminal offense?’ and ‘How much does a DUI cost?’, there are a few basics that you should know. Understanding them doesn’t just help you evaluate your situation, but it shows you what to expect when you talk to a lawyer or in front of a judge.

First and foremost, the law takes DUIs very seriously because of the dangers that are associated with impaired driving.

During 2016, over 1,200 children died from car accidents. Alcohol caused 17% (more than 200) of these fatalities. Moreover, intoxicated drivers are responsible for 28% of the total traffic deaths in 2016.

These figures are alarming. As a result, DUI laws on both the federal and state levels are becoming more strict.

Important Concepts

If you are accused of impaired driving, there are a few key concepts that you should be aware of.

  • Driving a Vehicle: Some states and localities will only charge someone with a DUI if they were actively driving their car.
  • Operating a Vehicle: Other state and local courts, on the other hand, have an expanded definition of a DUI. Operating a vehicle (such as sitting behind the wheel of a non-moving car) while intoxicated is enough to get you charged.
  • Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC): The amount of alcohol in someone’s breath or bloodstream, as detected by a breathalyzer. In most cases, drivers who have a BAC of 0.08 or more may face serious charges.

A DUI, DWI, or OVI Charge: What’s the difference?

When dealing with these accusations, offenders must first understand how their state defines DUIs. This is especially crucial if you got pulled over and/or arrested away from home.

What might be considered okay in one state may constitute a crime in another.

  • DUI (Driving Under the Influence): Pertains to drivers who consumed alcohol but have a BAC of 0.08 or less.
  • DWI (Driving While Impaired): Some states use this term instead of DUI, but many of them have both DUI and DWI laws. A DWI is more serious than a DUI. Drivers whose BAC is above 0.08 and/or are under the influence of other non-alcoholic substances (i.e. drugs) will likely face DWI charges.
  • OVI (Operating a Vehicle Impaired): Ohio is the only state that uses an OVI charge instead of a DUI. It applies to operating any type of vehicle, including bicycles. However, many other states will also penalize impaired bikers and horse riders under their DUI or DWI laws.

Understanding these different terms and their importance is going to be crucial to your case. Many federal and local laws rely on them when they determine the severity and punishment of an impaired driving violation.

In other words, after going over them, we are one step closer to answering the initial question: Is a DUI a criminal offense?

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Across the board, many courts and law enforcement officials use a driver’s BAC level to determine how impaired they are.

In most cases, a breathalyzer or a blood test will define your BAC. Firstly, breathalyzers are easy to use on the field. In addition, they cost less money and police officers can conduct tests relatively quickly.

However, there are certain downfalls to breathalyzers that you can use as part of your defense. We will go over those later in the article.

An alternative to this method is a blood test. Yet, not many policemen and policewomen will resort to it for several reasons. First, in order to conduct a blood test, law enforcement officers need to take the suspect to a hospital or medical facility.

By the time that they arrive, the driver’s BAC may drop below 0.08. In turn, they are no longer considered to be “intoxicated” when the test results are concluded.

Equally as important, in a recent case, the US Supreme Court ruled that blood tests, unlike breathalyzers, are an intrusive search method. More specifically, suspects are protected by the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which requires police officers to get a search warrant before conducting a blood test.

Because of this, law enforcement officials prefer breathalyzers. They only resort to blood tests if a suspect doesn’t cooperate or during other special circumstances.

Illegal Drugs

Is a DUI a criminal offense? Needless to say, it certainly is when illegal drugs are involved. After all, the possession and consumption of a controlled substance, in itself, is a crime.

Having said that, in light of recent changes to many state laws, marijuana-related DUIs are in a unique position.

Legal Marijuana and a DUI/DWI/OVI Charge

First, unlike with alcohol, police officers don’t have a quick and easy alternative to breathalyzers that they can use to determine a cannabis user’s intoxication level.

In states where medical and/or recreational marijuana is legal, law enforcement officials only resort to blood tests. However, as far as cannabis is concerned, there a certain downsides to this method.

Alongside the lengthy and, at times, costly process of taking a suspect to the hospital, many people argue that blood tests cannot accurately determine someone’s intoxication level.

As a matter of fact, different states set their own cannabis concentration levels (in the blood) when determining whether or not a driver is impaired. These levels vary greatly, even more so than the different BAC thresholds across different localities.

Alcohol is consumed, digested, and processed out of a user’s system within a few hours or days. In other words, it is easy to determine how much someone had to drink and how long ago they did so when utilizing a breathalyzer or blood test.

Marijuana, on the other hand, stays in a consumer’s body for a longer period of time. To clarify, someone who smoked cannabis two weeks ago may still have enough of the drug in their blood stream to be considered impaired, even if the effects of the marijuana faded away weeks ago.

If you have been pulled over or arrested in a state that legalized marijuana, it is important to study the different intoxication thresholds and methodologies that law enforcement use to measure that.hotrod-die-cast-model-on-board-1422673.jpg

Above all else, keep in mind that cannabis is illegal on the federal level. Similarly, many other states still treat the consumption and possession of the drug as a felony, with attached mandatory minimum prison sentences.

State Laws and Alcohol

The federal government considers someone a drunk driver if they have a BAC of 0.08 or more. Each state evaluates this differently.

Stricter ones may convict someone of a DUI if their BAC is above 0.08. Meanwhile, other states offer leniency and light charges when a driver’s alcohol concentration is between 0.05 and 0.08.

Nonetheless, other situations can also influence the punishment. For example, certain states criminalize DUIs, outright, when an intoxicated driver has children in the car. This may even apply if their BAC is lower than 0.05.

Just as importantly, many states will charge a suspect with a felony when someone gets injured. In those cases, the driver’s BAC is irrelevant. Moreover, the law prosecutes them as felons regardless of whether they injure their passenger, another vehicle’s driver, or a pedestrian.

Is a DUI a criminal offense? That depends on your history

Generally speaking, if a driver faces their first DUI, DWI, or OVI charge, the law will treat that as a misdemeanor. However, when an offender has an abnormally high BAC, such as 0.1 or more, the police will prosecute them as felons, even if they are first-time offenders.

Similarly, the legal system treats repetitive violators more harshly. This is the case on the federal level and across all 50 states.

For example, law enforcement pull over a drunk driver and determine that they are intoxicated. Initially, the government charges them with a misdemeanor (provided that there are no injuries or children in the vehicle).

Three years later, the same driver faces another DUI, DWI, or OVI charge. More likely than not, the state or federal government will treat the offender as a felon.

If the driver violates these laws again, the punishment only gets harsher.

It is important to note that timeframes may vary from one state to another. For example, in certain locations, the government will define a repeat offender as someone who had more than one DUI within seven years.

Other states might look at a shorter timeline (such as five years). Stricter jurisdictions, meanwhile, will take a driver’s ten-year history into account.

Reducing a DUI, DWI, or OVI Charge

If you violated the law for the first time, some courts will reduce your charges to a less-serious offense, even more so when a driver has a low BAC.

In most cases, a DUI can turn into a negligent or reckless driving violation. This is especially true when prosecutors don’t have strong enough evidence. A few factors can cause this.

  • Breathalyzer Functionality: Just as with any other device, a damaged breathalyzer can lead to a falsely high BAC.
  • Inaccurate Tests: Acid reflexes and other health issues can falsely elevate someone’s BAC, even if their last drink was many hours ago.
  • Officer Conduct: If a policeman or policewoman doesn’t follow the right process when they pull over and examine a suspect, a court might reduce or drop a DUI, DWI, or OVI charge.

There are many benefits to lowering your offenses. First, a negligent or reckless driving violation is much less serious than a DUI. The legal system doesn’t consider this a criminal offense and the charges don’t show up on your record.

In other words, your employer is much less likely to fire you for negligent driving than for a DUI. Even if you are a repeat offender, reduced violations may allow drivers to avoid felony convictions.

Having said that, a DUI, DWI, or OVI charge doesn’t always go away or become lower. As always, you should consult with a lawyer about your specific situation, local laws, and possible options.

Equally as important, if a court does reduce your charges, you likely still have to pay fines and abide by other conditions.

How Much Does a DUI Cost?

Intoxicated drivers face penalties that are up to thousands of dollars. When your BAC is relatively high or if there are children in the car, the fine or total DUI cost is even more punishing.

Similarly, repeat offenders have to pay the largest amount of fees.

Apart from the financial DUI cost, there are other forms of punishment.


If someone has multiple intoxicated driving violations, the court may sentence them to up to one year in jail. Moreover, police officers incarcerate first-time offenders, in general.

Usually, they stay in jail for 24 to 48 hours or until a friend/relative bails them out. Needless to say, if you drive under the influence of an illegal drug, prison time becomes more likely.


Obviously, courts treat intoxicated drivers as substance abusers that have an addiction problem. In turn, they require offenders to participate in rehabilitation programs and demonstrate that they are recovering from their issues.

In fact, this may be a condition to reducing someone’s punishment, fines, and/or jail sentence.

License Suspensions 

Most of the time, courts will ban those who have DUI, DWI, or OVI charge from driving. More specifically, they suspend their license until the court hears the suspects case. At times, a judge will only reinstate your driving privileges after you pay the fines or enroll in a rehab program.

Interlock Devices

DUI offenders might have to purchase and install a breathalyzer in their car. After that, they have to blow into this interlock device and show that their BAC is at zero.

Otherwise, the vehicle will not start and the breathalyzer immediately notifies the police if it detects any alcohol or drugs in the driver’s system. Moreover, repeat offenders may have to keep this device for years.

The Grand Total DUI Cost

Keep in mind that a convicted drunk driver must pay for each DUI cost, including the rehab classes, interlock devices, a license reactivation fees.

In addition, offenders must account for legal expenses and transportation costs (such as an Uber or taxi when the license is suspended) when they add up their total DUI cost.

Is a DWI/OVI charge a criminal offense? How much does a DUI cost? In short, that depends

Every state has its own penalties and ways to determine the total DUI cost to an offender. Similarly, the federal government follows a certain mechanism when they examine a DUI, DWI, or OVI charge.

Furthermore, a high BAC, drunk driving with children in the car, and using illegal substances can all make you a felon.alcoholic-beer-cars-city-576494.jpg

An offender’s overall DUI cost may include prison time, legal fees, rehab programs, and interlock devices. Because of this, many suspects find ways to drop their DUI/DWI/OVI charge to a less punishing offense.

If you are a first time violator, the courts are likely going to be lenient towards you, especially if you had a low BAC and didn’t break any other laws. Yet, even repeat offenders can reduce their charges in order to avoid prison time and harsh penalties.

Is a DUI a criminal offense? How much will a DUI cost? This article gave you answers to these questions and more. The obvious next step would be to talk to a lawyer and prepare your case.

However, beforehand, it is a wise idea to review your state’s laws and penalties. After that, you can better analyze your specific situation and find an attorney who will be able to help you out accordingly.

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