Overview of Drunk Driving
Each US state has its own set of drunk-driving laws, and in some states drunk driving is a crime, while in others, like New Jersey, it is classified as a traffic offense. While drunk-driving laws do differ among the states, there are certain concepts and features common to most states’ drunk-driving jurisprudence. Basically, as we all know, operating a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol and/or drugs to a degree that impairs a person’s judgment and ability to drive safely is a serious offense. Both criminal and civil penalties for drunk driving can be harsh and often include:
- Loss or suspension of license
- Large fines
- Substance-abuse treatment
- Jail or prison time
- Community service
- Criminal record
- Restrictive probationary license programs, including ignition interlock devices and Cinderella licenses
In addition, the social stigma and effect on your career may have lifelong negative consequences.
If you have been stopped for, arrested for or charged with drunk driving, it is in your best interest to discuss your options and rights as soon as possible with an attorney who has experience handling drunk-driving cases. Drunk-driving law is complex and the guidance of a skilled and knowledgeable lawyer can make a significant difference in a defendant’s experience and in the outcome of his or her case.
Terminology and Elements of Drunk Driving
The offense of drunk driving goes by a variety of names among the states, including:
- Driving under the influence (DUI)
- Driving while intoxicated (DWI)
- Operating under the influence (OUI)
- Operating while intoxicated (OWI)
- Driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUII)
- Driving while under the influence (DWUI)
In the language of the various state statutes, a drunk-driving conviction requires driving or operating a vehicle or motor vehicle. While that sounds straightforward, a review of drunk-driving cases shows otherwise.
The requirement of driving or operating implies that the driver must have some sort of control or command of the vehicle. Guilt or innocence may hang on whether the defendant was actually “driving” in a particular circumstance. What if he or she was just sitting behind the wheel of a car but it was off? What if the defendant was sleeping there? What if the keys were in the defendant’s pocket and not in the ignition? What if that car was out of gas and could not be started? What if it was idling? What if it was being towed? Courts nationwide have considered various scenarios to determine whether the necessary control over the vehicle was present and the outcomes vary by state and by the individual circumstances.
Cars, trucks and vans are obviously considered to be vehicles for drunk-driving law purposes. However, people have been convicted of drunk driving while operating motorboats, mopeds, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, electric wheelchairs, golf carts, bicycles and ATVs, although the types of vehicles contemplated differ by state.
One way prosecutors prove driver intoxication is through scientific testing of the amount of alcohol in the body, usually by analyzing the breath or blood. These tests are usually administered by machines, such as the Breathalyzer®. In every state, a person with a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) over .08 is considered legally intoxicated.
Implied-consent laws create the legal presumption that if a person takes advantage of the privilege of driving, he or she automatically consents to state-administered chemical testing to determine his or her BAC. If a driver refuses to take a chemical-alcohol test, his or her driver’s license may be revoked or suspended.
BAC test results over the legal limit are usually presumed to be proof of intoxication. However, defendants may challenge the conclusiveness of the results by showing irregularities in the test administration procedure or problems with the test equipment. For example, your lawyer may advise retesting of your breath sample tubes. He or she may be able to obtain exclusion of the original breath test results from the case or even dismissal of the case entirely.
Other types of evidence used by prosecuting attorneys to show intoxication include drivers’ statements, witness and police observations of behavior and driving patterns and circumstantial evidence. An example of possibly relevant circumstantial evidence is that a defendant, before driving, spent the afternoon at a party where drinking games were played.
Police also gather important evidence of intoxication by administering standard field sobriety tests (FSTs) at the scenes of traffic stops. Common field sobriety tests include:
- Finger-to-nose test
- One-legged stand
- Walk-and-turn test
- Horizontal-gaze-nystagmus test
- Picking up coins
- Counting backwards
- Reciting the alphabet
- Throwing and/or catching a ball
Driving is the basis of the American lifestyle, permeating every activity we do. We rely on driving to get to work, to socialize, to run errands and to vacation. Licensed drivers transport children, people with disabilities and senior citizens to important appointments and activities. A drunk-driving conviction can bring a screeching halt to your life. If you face a potential problem with drunk driving, a lawyer can fight for you and help protect your interests and those of your family and loved ones.
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DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are 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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