Drunk Driving / DWI – An Overview
The crime of drunk driving is also known as “driving under the influence,” or DUI, and “driving while intoxicated,” or DWI. In some states, the crime may be known as “operating while intoxicated, or OWI, or “operating under the influence,” or OUI. The names vary according to how state laws refer to or define the crime. Whatever the name, the state laws all have a common aim of punishing those who drive while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. A drunk driving conviction carries with it serious and long-lasting consequences: jail or prison time, a heavy fine, and suspension or revocation of a driver’s license. A person who is facing a drunk driving charge should not hesitate to seek immediate legal counsel from an experienced drunk driving defense attorney.
Drunk Driving: Elements of the Offense
No matter what the name of the crime might be-DUI, DWI, OUI, or OWI the first element of the crime is “driving,” or “operating,” a motor vehicle. This language is intended to describe the level of physical control a person has over the motor vehicle. In many states, operating or driving does not require that the vehicle actually be in motion, or even that the engine be running. A person who is found sitting behind the wheel of a car may be convicted of driving or operating the car while under the influence. Courts have even convicted people sitting behind the wheel of a car while it is being towed. Passengers are seldom considered operators or drivers unless they grab the steering wheel.
As used in the drunk driving laws, the term “vehicle” is defined more broadly than just “motor vehicle.” Usually, a “vehicle” is defined as anything that carries people or goods. A “motor vehicle” is something powered by a motor or engine. Either term can include cars, trucks, even motorboats. Most laws draw a distinction between inoperable vehicles and those that are only immobile-capable of moving, but not moving at the time. Legal distinctions such as this are one reason you need an experienced drunk driving defense attorney to give your case the careful analysis needed.
Another element of a drunk driving charge is the location of the offense. Older drunk driving laws often included limiting phrases, such as “on the public highways of the state.” Many judges relied on that language to conclude that the drunk driving laws did not apply to someone driving on private property, including parking lots. Modern laws, however, require only proof that the offense took place within the boundaries of the state.
Proof of a Drunk Driving Charge
Drunk driving laws are intended to prevent the operation of a powerful and potentially dangerous machine when the operator cannot be in adequate control. Intoxication is shown in one of two ways: (1) a blood alcohol level in excess of a certain amount, or (2) proving that the driver or operator was impaired from the use of alcohol or illegal drugs. The first method is the method preferred by prosecutors. The proof does not rely on anyone’s observation or judgment of someone’s behavior, but depends solely on the results of a blood alcohol test. Laws often require a person who is suspected of driving while drunk or using illegal drugs to give a sample of his or her blood or breath for chemical testing purposes. These laws are known as “implied consent” laws, because they provide that by operating a motor vehicle, the driver has given his or her consent to such a test. When a sample is taken, it is analyzed by a machine to determine the concentration of alcohol in a person’s blood. The maximum blood alcohol level varies from state to state. For many years, the most common maximum level was .10 percent, but most states have now lowered the level to .08. Any driver or operator who has a blood alcohol level over the legal limit is considered legally intoxicated. The results of the test are usually considered conclusive, and can be challenged only by showing that the test failed for a reason such as faulty or malfunctioning test equipment, improper sampling, faulty preservation of the sample, or (in the case of a breath test) a foreign object in the mouth when the test was conducted.
Impairment may also be proven by the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident for which the driver was stopped or arrested. These facts and circumstances include observations of the driver by eyewitnesses, statements made by the driver or operator, and circumstantial evidence (for example, evidence that a defendant left a bar after being inside for several hours). The inquiry focuses on whether the defendant’s ability to drive was impaired. Law enforcement officers have a number of standard tests for impairment, done at the time a driver is stopped, known as “field sobriety tests.” These tests include walking a straight line by placing one foot directly in front of the other, holding one’s arms straight out at the sides and touching the nose with closed eyes, counting backwards, and reciting the alphabet. Other evidence of impairment may include a law enforcement officer’s observation of the defendant’s driving, which probably was the reason the driver was stopped in the first place. Conduct such as driving too fast or too slowly, weaving across lanes, and going through stop signs or stoplights may be considered evidence of a driver’s impairment. Drivers often will tell an officer who stops them that they have been drinking, how much they’ve had to drink, and when they had it. Such statements may also be evidence of impairment.
Drunk Driving Penalties
In the last twenty years, the penalties for drunk driving have become far more severe than they were in the past. First-time offenders face potential jail time and fines, although often the penalty for a first-time offense will be something less than jail time in exchange for a guilty plea. Repeat offenders are usually treated more harshly, with substantial fines and mandatory jail sentences that may not be suspended or waived by the court. State administrative regulations often call for the suspension or revocation of a defendant’s driver’s license, in addition to any criminal penalty. Defendants have sometimes tried to make the argument that this administrative suspension is double jeopardy prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, but these arguments have never succeeded.
A drunk driving charge is a serious criminal charge. Most of us rely on the ability to drive to do many everyday things, such as getting to work, buying groceries, and transporting family members to activities like lessons, medical appointments, and school. A person who is charged with drunk driving stands an excellent chance of losing his or her driving privileges either temporarily or permanently, and also runs the risk of suffering more severe consequences, such as a fine or a jail sentence. If you have been accused of a drunk driving offense, contact an experienced drunk driving defense attorney immediately. You cannot afford not to have expert counsel on your side.
DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.
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The Prosecutor’s Role in a Drunk Driving Case
Challenging the Reliability of Breathalyzer Test Results
Frequently Asked Questions about Drunk Driving / DUI
Drunk Driving / DUI Resource Links