First Offense DUI and DWI Penalties Span a Wide Spectrum Throughout U.S.

Predictability is a cornerstone of the rule of law in America. It is an issue of justice and fundamental fairness-like cases should be treated alike. Predictability in the law has more utilitarian advantages as well: settlement without drawn-out conflict grows easier as end results become more certain, and conforming conduct to be law-abiding is simpler when the exact consequences of a given behavior are clear. Great thinkers throughout history, from Plato to Thomas Aquinas, have touted the desirability of consistency in the law.

But, despite rich cultural underpinnings, American jurisdictions seem to have particular difficultly putting predictability into practice when it comes to drunk-driving laws: your punishment in Scottsdale, Arizona could be completely different from that imposed on a driver for engaging in the exact same behavior just a few states away in Peoria, Illinois.

Some Scottsdale DUI lawyers agree and say these differences can be in terms of mandatory jail time, high BAC enhancements, treatment programs and numerous other distinctions. For those who have made a mistake and wind up in court on a DUI or DWI charge, the potential for severe punishment depends more upon where an offense allegedly took place than the actual conduct committed.

General DUI, DWI and OWI provisions

Even acronyms referring to illegally operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol vary by state. The most common are driving under the influence (DUI), driving while intoxicated (DWI) or operating while intoxicated (OWI).

Blood alcohol content, or BAC, is the standard measure of intoxication level. BAC is typically expressed as a percentage of alcohol in the blood. In terms of BAC limits, at least, there is some consistency among states. Thanks to a federal mandate denying highway funding to any states that failed to lower permissible BAC levels, the legal BAC limit for operating a motor vehicle is generally 0.08 throughout the United States.

However, in most jurisdictions, an individual can end up with a DUI charge even if his or her BAC is under the legal limit. Extrinsic evidence that shows impairment can be used to secure a DUI conviction (although such evidence is often far weaker in court compared to a high BAC test result).

A number of states provide for enhanced penalties when a first-time DUI offender has a BAC above a certain level. In Arizona, stepped-up penalties begin at BACs of 0.15 or higher; some states only allow for heightened sentences at BACs over 0.20. Every state has some form of zero-tolerance policy for drivers under the age of 21; many issue citations to young drivers with any detectable amount of alcohol in their systems, while others require non-negligible BACs over 0.02.

Other than a high BAC, additional state-specific sentence enhancement factors for a first time drunk-driving conviction may include driving over a certain speed, having child passengers in the vehicle, refusing a BAC test or being involved in a traffic accident.

Mandatory penalties for a first-time DUI or DWI conviction run a diverse gamut depending on the state. Many states require a minimum jail term for all first-time offenders (usually a day or two); others mandate minimum probation terms, community service, fines, alcohol treatment/evaluation, etc. Some states also require the installation of an ignition interlock (a device that requires drivers to submit to a BAC test before their vehicle will start) for first time DUI offenders, and vehicle confiscation is also a possibility in certain jurisdictions.

Arizona: a Comparison

An illustrative example can help demonstrate the many DUI differences among states.

In Arizona, as in other states, the per se BAC limit is .08. Every Arizona DUI offender will face a minimum of 24 hours in jail, and enhanced penalties kick in at a 0.15 BAC. Those arrested with a BAC between 0.15 and 0.20 will face at least 30 days in jail, while those over 0.20 will be locked up for 45 days or more.

First-time DUI offenders in Arizona will additionally be forced to install an ignition interlock device on their vehicle, attend alcohol education classes and pay mandatory fines. The term of driver's license suspension for a first DUI is 90 days.

By contrast, states like Washington, Oregon, California, Nebraska, Wisconsin and New Mexico, require no mandatory jail term for first-time drunk drivers. In Illinois, enhanced penalties do not kick in until BAC levels reach 0.20; Wyoming has no enhanced penalties for high BACs at all.

Several states, including Massachusetts, Alabama and Connecticut do not require ignition interlocks for any offenders, and many others apply ignition interlock requirements only to certain at-risk offenders. Unlike Arizona, some states do not require alcohol education classes for offenders. Arizona's 90 day license suspicion is mirrored in numerous states, but the period of mandatory license suspension for first-time offenders is higher in a few jurisdictions (like Indiana, 180 days) and lower in others (such as South Dakota, 30 days). While a fine for DUI or DWI is fairly universal, amounts vary widely.

Unfortunately, a lack of universal laws means that DWI/DUI cases can be difficult to navigate. In can also be challenging to secure a fair and just outcome in states like Arizona with particularly harsh sentencing requirements.