Drunk driving convictions carry serious criminal consequences, which increase dramatically for repeat offenders and for those with elevated levels of alcohol in their blood. Because the consequences can be severe, anyone arrested on a DUI or DWI charge is strongly advised to retain the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney.
In all 50 states driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level higher than 0.08 percent is illegal. States also recognizes that impairment can occur from substances other than alcohol and criminalizes driving conduct that is impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
Most states have zero tolerance laws regarding minors. Any detectable level of alcohol may result in a license suspension and possible community service obligations.
Many DUI arrests occur after midnight when bars have closed and people are driving home. Law enforcement often increase patrols during holidays like New Year's Eve and St. Patrick Day when revelers more frequently make the poor decision to drive despite knowing they are over the legal limit.
Law enforcement must have a reasonable articulable suspicion to stop a vehicle, such as erratic driving, a missing taillight or some other traffic or moving violation. After stopping a vehicle, police will observe the driver for signs of intoxication such as slurred speech or incoherent responses and will then ask the driver to perform certain field sobriety tests (FST). Failure to adequately perform these tests may lead the officer to conclude the driver is impaired and cause them to ask the driver to take a breathalyzer or blood test.
The implied consent laws of all states mandate that any driver must take an alcohol blood test if suspected of drunk driving or lose their driving privileges. This means that a driver must provide a sample of his breath, if there is sufficient cause to believe the driver may be intoxicated. Refusing the breathalyzer can result in severe penalties regardless of whether the driver is convicted of driving while intoxicated. In New Jersey, for a first offense of refusing the breathalyzer, the driver will lose his driving privileges for a minimum of seven months.
A small percentage of arrests occur at sobriety checkpoints, which are designed mainly to deter drunk drivers. These are subject to strict guidelines, including advance notice to motorists approaching checkpoints.
A drunk driving arrest triggers a criminal proceeding. In New Jersey, a drunk driver will lose his license for a minimum of 3 months, for a first offense, and up to a year. The penalties increase for subsequent offenses. A drunk driver can also be incarcerated, particularly if the driver has an elevated blood alcohol level, is a repeat offender and/or causes injury to another person.
A drunk driving incident that results in a serious injury or death to another person, will be upgraded to the crime of assault by auto or death by auto (otherwise referred to as vehicular homicide) with the potential for prolonged jail time.
A conviction can result in minimal jail time and fines up to $400.00 for first offenders. In New Jersey, those with elevated blood alcohol levels, 0.10 percent and above, face jail time up to 30 days, license suspension of one year, and fines up to $500. Subsequent offenders can face license suspension between two and ten years, increased jail time, increased fines, and required use of an ignition interlock system on their vehicles. Driving while intoxicated in a school zone will result in enhanced penalties. In addition, the drunk driver must pay a surcharge of $1,000.00 per year for three years to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. A conviction for driving while intoxicated can have employment or travel repercussions, and usually results in higher auto and life insurance premiums.
If you are facing a DUI/DWI charge, you should immediately seek the advice of a qualified criminal defense lawyer to protect their rights and fully understand their legal options.
Some commonly used legal defenses in DUI cases include:
- Challenging the field sobriety test (FST).
The National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) has a manual on the proper protocol for administering these tests. Failure to follow these guidelines could render a driver’s performance on the FST inadmissible.
A motorist could have a physical disability preventing them from adequately performing any coordination test, or simply experienced tremendous stress while performing.
- Flawed administration of breathalyzer tests. A breath test needs to be properly maintained and calibrated. Improper documentation of the procedure could render any results invalid. Also, an officer needs to observe an offender for at least 20 minutes before having them take the test.
- Invalid blood test results. Technicians are responsible for following procedures, documentation standards and for ensuring the blood test kit has not expired. Failing to perform these duties can result in the blood test being inadmissible.
- Medication. The use of certain medications can produce false high readings on a breath or blood test. Birth control pills can speed the absorption rate of alcohol in women and contribute to false high readings. Other legal drugs could also affect the readings.
- Driving conduct. There could be a wide array of explanations for erratic driving conduct other than being impaired.
Only an experienced criminal defense attorney can effectively select and employ viable defenses on your behalf. Retaining an attorney is essential for anyone charged with DUI/DWI to achieve the best possible outcome for your case.