Driving while impaired or under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a serious criminal offense, especially if someone is hurt or killed in a resulting accident. DUI and DWI laws and penalties vary by state. Know the rules in your state and work with a lawyer if charged with impaired driving.

What Are DUI and DWI?

Driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated or impaired (DWI) are crimes in all states. Each state has its own laws for these and other similar driving criminal offenses. Impaired driving is not just illegal for alcohol. It is also a criminal offense to operate a vehicle under the influence of a drug or controlled substance.[1]

Police officers have a right to pull over a driver on suspicion of impairment and to request testing. Drivers may refuse a chemical alcohol test on the spot, but doing so can have its own penalties. These vary by state. Police may also set up sobriety checkpoints, which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.[1]

DUI and DWI – What’s the Difference?

Laws vary by state for impaired and intoxicated driving, and so do the terms used. Some states use the term DUI, others use DWI, and some use both, but they have different meanings. Definitions of the terms are important because they describe the illegal behavior, which informs drivers of what they cannot do. Some of the terms states use include:

  • Driving under the influence. DUI usually means driving after or while using alcohol or any drug that can impair driving ability.
  • Driving while impaired/intoxicated. DWI refers to being impaired or intoxicated. In some states, this is used instead of DUI.
  • Per Se DUI or DWI. If a driver tests 0.08 for blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the law considers them intoxicated or impaired. They do not have to fail a sobriety test to show impairment.
  • Aggravated DUI or DWI. States set a higher BAC level for aggravated DUI or DWI, which comes with an enhanced penalty. This is anywhere from 0.15 to 0.20, depending on the state.
  • Zero tolerance. All states have a lower tolerance for BAC in underaged drivers. Most set the zero-tolerance BAC at 0.02, while some use zero. A driver under 21 with a BAC higher than these levels is considered impaired.  

Some states also have separate terms for driving with a BAC less than 0.08, driving under the influence of a drug, and driving under the influence of both drugs and alcohol.

What Are the Consequences and Penalties for DUI and DWI Charges?

The consequences of being arrested for and charged with impaired or intoxicated driving vary by state but are significant. From fines to jail time or alternative penalties, you’ll face several consequences:

Jail Time

In many states, the first offense is considered a misdemeanor. Imprisonment times vary significantly. In some states, a first DUI never includes jail time, while in others, there are maximum jail times, 30 days or up to six months in some states.

Second and third offenses usually result in more jail time, but again the maximum varies by state. Jail time may increase based on other contributing factors: a higher BAC or an accident. A DUI accident that results in a serious injury or fatality is a felony in most states. This can lead to several years in prison.


Nearly all instances of DUI or DWI result in fines. As with jail time, the fines usually go up with a second or subsequent offense and serious consequences or higher BAC. A first offense DUI typically costs the driver between $500 and $2,000.

License Suspension

States vary in when and how long a driver loses their license after a DUI. Some states are stricter than others. In California, for instance, your license will be suspended for six months after a first offense and for three years for a third offense.

In many states, you will lose your license if you refuse a chemical test for blood alcohol concentration. It’s typically a longer suspension than you might get for cooperating, which encourages drivers to agree to the test.

If you lose your license because of a DUI or DWI, you may be given exemptions. For instance, you could be allowed to drive to work or support group meetings.

Alternative Penalties

In addition to suspending the license, some states will take additional steps to keep someone off the road. For example, you might get an ignition interlock device installed in your car. To start the car, you must pass a breathalyzer. You could even have your car confiscated or have the registration suspended.

Alternative sentencing, such as prevention programs or substance abuse treatment, are options in some states for DUI offenses. A judge typically grants these alternative penalties to first-time offenders.  

Not all of the consequences of a DUI or DWI come from the courts. You may find that your insurance company cancels your auto policy or raises rates significantly. Some employers will not hire anyone with a DUI on their records. This is typical for driving jobs, like bus drivers. If you cause an accident and hurt someone, they could file a civil lawsuit against you to recover damages.

What Should I Do if I’m Charged with a DUI or DWI?

When pulled over for a DUI, you have certain rights. It would help if you were polite and cooperative, but you do not have to take a field sobriety or chemical sobriety test. You have a right to refuse to answer questions about how much you drank.

If the police arrest you for driving under the influence, the best thing you can do is call a lawyer to represent you. A DUI and DWI lawyer has experience in these situations and will be able to give you the best advice. Avoid answering any questions until your lawyer is there.

DUI and DWI charges are serious. Take them seriously and work with a lawyer who can help you prepare a defense and uphold your rights.

  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Driving Under the Influence.
    Retrieved from: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/driving_under_the_influence_(dui)