Last Updated on August 19, 2023
Understanding California DUI Laws
The decision to drive while under the influence is not only a bad choice, but one which leads to tragedies of the worst kind at an appalling rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control an alcohol impaired driver kills one person every 51 minutes in the United States. That’s nearly 30 unnecessary deaths a day.
Considering the shocking statistics, it should come as no surprise that states are cracking down on drunk drivers more than ever. California’s DUI laws are some of the toughest in the country.
DUI Alcohol Levels
Ask a person what the legal limit is for driving after drinking, and they will almost always tell you that it’s a .08 blood alcohol level. This is not entirely correct. In California, there are actually different percentages under the law:
- Under 21 Years of Age: .01 percent
- 21 or Over: .08 percent
- Commercial Drivers: .04 percent
- Repeat Offenders: .01 percent
The .01 percentages are a bit misleading. Individuals who are under 21 or repeat offenders are not allowed to drive with any alcohol in their systems. However, modern analysis devices cannot detect levels below .01 percent.
California DUI law places an emphasis on preventing drunk driving, by creating what can only be classified as draconian penalties for those people caught driving under the influence. The penalties associated with a single DUI conviction are strict, but they are much tougher for those who are convicted for subsequent drunk driving offenses.
Many Californians are shocked to learn they not only can go to jail because of an initial DUI, but that they are likely to be incarcerated for at least a short time. Although the initial DUI is classified as a misdemeanor, it still incorporates a sentence from between four days and six months, to be determined by the judge overseeing the case. The “good” news is that an experienced DUI criminal defense lawyer can often get the penalty knocked down to no jail time – but only if the defendant agrees to between 120 and 210 days of a license suspension. During the suspension period, the offender is only allowed to drive to and from work. For violating that order, the judge can issue further penalties including a reservation in the county jail for an extended period.
If you have been convicted of a DUI in the previous 10 years, your second offense will unquestionably result in jail time. The judge has the latitude to sentence you to between 10 days and one year for a second offense, and from 120 days to a year for a third offense. More than three offenses and you can expect to spend a minimum of 16 months in jail, but probably much longer. DUI judges become a bit cynical over time, so repeat offenders should expect to have the book thrown at you more often than not.
As if jail isn’t enough, a DUI conviction always comes with a financial penalty in the form of a fine. The schedule of fines is as follows:
- First Offense: Up to $1,800
- Second Offense: Up to $1,800
- Third Offense: Up to $1,800
- Fourth Offense: Up to $18,000
However, these numbers are a bit misleading. In addition to these fines, you will pay an additional court fee and assessment penalty which will add between $2,000 and $3,000 to the total bill. Throw in the cost of hiring a defense lawyer and you are looking at paying well over ten thousand dollars for the ill-advised decision to drive after drinking.
In an effort to toughen DUI laws, a number of state governments have added the penalty of a suspended license to a drunk driving conviction. In California, the following suspended license guidelines are used for DUI convictions:
- First Offense: 30 days to 10 months
- Second Offense: 1 to 2 years
- Third Offense: 3 years
- Fourth Offense: 4 years
A suspended license is not only inconvenient, it is embarrassing. Imagine spending ten months continually explaining to people that you need a ride because your license was suspended as a result of a DUI conviction. Yes, you can take cabs or Uber, but your bank account is going to be drained quickly.
Interlocking Ignition Devices
An interlock ignition device is essentially a breathalyzer for your car. The device measures your blood alcohol level much like the tool used by police for a field sobriety test. In this instance, however, the device is hooked up to your car ignition and the vehicle cannot be started until you blow into the device and register a 0.0 blood alcohol level.
In California, interlocking ignition devices are required as follows:
- First Offense: In some counties
- Second Offense: Statewide without exception
- Third Offense: Statewide without exception
- Fourth Offense: Statewide without exception
Alcohol Treatment Program
There’s still more, including required attendance at alcohol treatment programs. For first time California offenders found to have an alcohol level of less than .20, attendance in a three month program is mandatory. Those blowing .20 or higher must complete nine months in a program.
In many cases, first time offenders will be given a probationary period as well. The probation typically runs from three to five years. During this period, you
- Cannot drive with any alcohol whatsoever in your blood stream
- Must submit to breathalyzer tests on request from police officers without objection
- Must refrain from further violations of the law
Failure to meet these three requirements will lead to even more penalties from the court.
Injury To Others
The ramifications are even more serious if you injure or kill a person while driving under the influence of alcohol in California. At a minimum, you would be looking at a felony conviction resulting in at least a year in state prison. At a maximum, you could be looking at a five-year sentence for a first offense if the victim dies. If the DUI is a second, third or subsequent offense, the prison time increases and you can expect to spend many years locked up.
It should also be noted that criminal charges would not be your only legal problem because the individual you injured (or the family of a victim who died) will also sue you in civil court, seeking monetary damages for their medical bills, pain and suffering. The fact you are in prison will not weigh in your favor. Judgments are common, often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Know Your Rights
As should be clear, being arrested and charged with a DUI in California is no minor thing. A conviction will do serious practical and financial damage to your life.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand if you are pulled over is that the authorities are not your friends. No matter how clever and intelligent you consider yourself to be, anything you say can and will be used against you during trial. If stopped or arrested, your best move is to say nothing and retain legal counsel immediately.
California DUI laws are some of the stiffest in the country. To avoid having to deal with them, don’t drink and drive. If you do and you are arrested, keep your mouth shut and retain a drunk driving lawyer as quickly as possible.