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Will You Go To Prison For Drink Driving?

Drink driving is a serious offence that can result in severe punishments, including prison time. However, not every drink driving conviction results in a custodial sentence. The consequences you face depend on factors like the seriousness of the offence and your previous record.

What is Drink Driving?

Drink driving, also known as driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI), refers to operating a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol or drugs. It is illegal because it impairs your ability to drive safely.

Drink Driving Laws and Penalties

Drink driving laws establish the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC) while driving. In most states, the limit is 0.08% BAC. Some states have even lower limits for commercial drivers and drivers under the age of 21.

If you are caught over the legal BAC limit while driving, you can face a range of penalties:

  • Fines – Fines for a first offence typically range from $500 to $2,000. Higher BAC levels and repeat offences often result in steeper fines.
  • License suspension – A license suspension of several months is common. Many states require an ignition interlock device after suspension.
  • Community service – Performing community service may be mandated.
  • Probation – Probation periods of 1 year or more are frequently imposed. This involves close monitoring.
  • Jail time – Short jail sentences of a few days or weeks are possible first offences. Longer sentences are issued for repeat offences.
  • Prison time – While less common, DUI convictions can result in felony charges and years in prison in certain cases.

Factors That Determine DUI Sentencing

Judges consider many factors when determining sentences for DUI convictions. These include:

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

Higher BAC levels typically result in more severe penalties. For example, a first offence with a 0.15% BAC may receive a heavier fine and license suspension than a 0.09% BAC.

Prior Offences

Repeat DUIs are punished more harshly. Jail time becomes more likely with each new offence.

Aggravating Factors

Factors like speeding, reckless driving, refusing a breath test, and having an open container in the vehicle can mean enhanced penalties.

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Accidents and Injuries

Causing an accident or injuries/death while DUI leads to felony charges. Homicide charges are possible if others are killed.

Minor passengers

Having a minor in the vehicle often results in additional charges and more jail time.

Why Do Some DUIs Result in Jail Time?

For first and second DUI offences with no aggravating factors, judges often order probation and suspend any jail sentence. However, jail time may be imposed under certain circumstances:

  • High BAC levels exceeding 0.15%
  • Refusing a breathalyzer test
  • Reckless driving or excessive speeding
  • An accident, injuries, or death resulting from the DUI
  • Minor passengers in the vehicle
  • Violating probation terms for a prior DUI

For third and subsequent DUIs, judges are much more likely to order at least some jail time alongside other penalties. These repeat offences may be charged as felonies rather than misdemeanors.

When Does a DUI Become a Felony?

In most states, first and second DUI convictions are misdemeanor offences. However, a DUI may be bumped up to a felony charge if:

  • It is the third DUI offence within 10 years
  • A minor was present in the vehicle
  • The DUI caused injury, death or substantial property damage

Felony DUI charges involve lengthier jail sentences – typically between 1 and 5 years in state prison. In particularly serious cases, a felony DUI can result in decades of prison.

Let’s discuss some examples where a DUI may lead to felony charges and prison time:

Repeat DUI Offences

Most states upgrade a third DUI within 10 years to a felony. The exact prison sentence depends on state laws, but a 3rd DUI often results in 1-5 years behind bars.

Some states issue felony charges after the second DUI if the driver has a particularly bad record. For example, two DUI charges within 7 years plus aggravating factors like a high BAC.

For fourth and subsequent DUI offences within a short period, judges tend to impose harsher sentences along with the felony charge. Four or more DUIs can potentially mean decades in prison in some jurisdictions.

DUI With a Child Passenger

Having a minor passenger in the vehicle while committing a DUI is considered extremely reckless. Even if it is only a first offence, this often bumps the violation up to a felony charge.

Exact penalties vary, but a typical sentence for DUI with a child passenger would be 1-3 years in state prison. Hefty fines and an extended license suspension also apply.

DUI Causing Injury or Death

When a DUI driver causes an accident with injuries or fatalities, they can face felony charges:

  • DUI Assault – For injuring others while driving impaired – 1 to 20 years in prison.
  • Vehicular Manslaughter – For causing deaths while driving impaired – 5 to 20+ years in prison.

Sentences escalate depending on the number of people injured or killed. Causing multiple deaths may result in decades behind bars.

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Aggravated DUI Charges

In a handful of states like Arizona and Illinois, aggravated DUI is a specific charge carrying enhanced penalties. While rules vary between states, factors like these may qualify a DUI as aggravated:

  • High BAC of 0.15% or above
  • Excessive speeding over the limit
  • Reckless driving, including running red lights
  • Committing a DUI with a suspended or revoked license

Aggravated DUI is a felony offence with typical prison sentences of 3-7 years. Like other felonies, an aggravated DUI stays on a criminal record permanently.

Can a DUI Become a Misdemeanor?

For a DUI charge to be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor charge, it requires a plea bargain agreement with the prosecution. The judge also has to approve reducing the charges.

To qualify, the DUI offence typically cannot involve aggravating factors like an accident or injuries. The driver also needs to negotiate a guilty plea deal early on before going to trial. However, prosecutors are often reluctant to reduce felony DUI charges to misdemeanors.

Accepting a misdemeanor plea results in lighter penalties like shorter jail time. But the DUI still shows as a conviction on your criminal record.

How Long Do DUIs Stay on Your Record?

Like most crimes, DUIs stay on your criminal record permanently in most cases. However, for misdemeanor DUIs, it is possible to petition the court for an expungement after a period of time, such as 5-10 years. An expungement removes the conviction from public records and background checks. Felony DUIs usually cannot be expunged.

Can You Go to Jail for Your First DUI?

Judges have the discretion whether or not to impose jail time for a first misdemeanor DUI conviction. Jail time is relatively unlikely without aggravating circumstances. A first DUI resulting only in property damage typically leads to fines, license suspension, and probation without jail.

However, a short jail sentence of a few days or weeks may be ordered for a first DUI if factors like these are present:

  • BAC above 0.15%
  • Attempt to evade police
  • Speeding or reckless driving
  • Refusing a breathalyzer test
  • Violence toward police officers
  • Child passengers in the vehicle

So while rare, it is possible to receive jail time for a first DUI offence absent a felony charge or injuries/death. The probation period is also longer when jail is ordered for a first DUI.

Can You Avoid Jail Time For a Second DUI?

Unlike a first offence, jail time is very likely for a second misdemeanor DUI conviction even without aggravating factors. Sentences of 1 month or more in jail are common. However, it may be possible to avoid jail under these circumstances:

  • Enrolling in alcohol abuse treatment programs before sentencing and showing progress
  • Minimal or no criminal history besides the first DUI
  • Displaying remorse and accepting responsibility
  • Strong community ties through work, family, and charity involvement
  • Reaching a plea agreement to reduce charges
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Judges have some discretion to issue alternative sentencing options like home confinement or work release instead of strict jail time. Good behavior and following probation terms after a second DUI can also persuade the judge to minimize jail time. But avoiding it entirely is very difficult.

Consequences of Fleeing the Scene After a DUI

Leaving the scene after causing an accident while DUI is another felony offence on top of the DUI itself. Prison sentences for hit-and-runs involving alcohol typically range from 2 to 10 years.

If the accident caused injuries or deaths, fleeing the scene leads to further charges like felony assault or vehicular homicide. In the worst cases, prison sentences can reach up to 25 years to life.

How a DUI Lawyer Can Help Avoid Jail Time

While going to jail for DUI charges is possible, an experienced DUI attorney can often negotiate alternatives to jail:

  • Plea bargains – Work towards reducing charges or minimum sentencing recommendations.
  • Diversion programs – Gain entry into DUI treatment and education programs prior to conviction. These demonstrate efforts to change and avoid jail.
  • House arrest – Negotiate house arrest terms allowing confinement at home rather than in jail.
  • Reduced probation – Avoid extended probation periods and early release from probation if conditions are satisfied.
  • Lower fines – Reduce fines to affordable amounts to avoid future probation violations leading to jail.
  • Limited license reinstatement – Regain driving privileges sooner than the suspension term through restrictions like ignition interlock devices.

While certainly not guaranteed, skilled DUI lawyers know how to craft the strongest argument to keep a client out of jail even with aggravating factors in play. Having good legal representation can make a major difference in the outcome of a DUI case compared to going it alone.

Table of Hypothetical Drink Driving Crimes and Dates Committed

CrimeDate Committed
First DUI – 0.09% BACJanuary 1, 2018
Second DUI – 0.11% BACMarch 15, 2019
Third DUI – 0.17% BACSeptember 30, 2020
DUI with child passenger – 0.12% BACJune 10, 2021
DUI resulting in injury accident – 0.16% BACMay 5, 2022
Fourth DUI – 0.20% BACJanuary 20, 2023


Drink driving can result in misdemeanor charges, felony charges, or somewhere in between depending on the circumstances of the case. Aggravating factors like excessive speeding, BAC level, and prior DUIs as well as causing any injuries or deaths will significantly increase the likelihood of steep criminal penalties. While first offences rarely lead to jail beyond a few days, repeat offences and impaired driving incidents involving harm to others frequently end in months or years of incarceration in addition to fines and license suspension. With the right legal guidance, some jail time may be avoided for certain DUI cases lacking severely aggravating factors. But ultimately the harshest sentences are reserved for those who dangerously repeat the offence or cause irreversible harm to innocent victims.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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