OVERVIEW OF DRUNK DRIVING – DUI Attorney PA

Pennsylvania’s DUI law can be found in the Vehicle Code at 75 Pa.C.S. 3802. All first offenses (unless there was an accident with serious injuries or death) are considered ungraded misdemeanors with a maximum punishment of up to six months in jail or probation. Second and subsequent offenses (unless there was an accident with serious injuries or death) are either ungraded misdemeanors or a misdemeanor of the first degree with a maximum punishment of up to 5 years. The potential penalties for drunk driving can be harsh and often include:

  • Loss or suspension of driver’s license
  • Large fines
  • Substance abuse treatment
  • Jail or prison time
  • Community service
  • Restitution
  • Criminal record

In addition, the social stigma and public perception associated with a DUI charge can affect your employment or career and may result in lifelong negative consequences.

If you have been stopped, arrested, or charged with drunk driving, it is in your best interest to discuss your options and rights as soon as possible with an experienced attorney who has handled hundreds of drunk driving cases. The DUI laws are complex and the guidance of a skilled and knowledgeable lawyer can make a significant difference in the outcome of an individual’s case.

Terminology and Elements of Drunk Driving

The offense of drunk driving goes by a variety of names, 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)
  • Driving After Imbibing (DAI)

All of the above names are synonymous. A drunk driving conviction requires driving or operating a motor vehicle. While that sounds straightforward, a review of drunk driving cases shows otherwise.

Driving Requirement

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 the ignition? What if the car was out of gas and could not be started? What if it was idling? What if it was being towed? Courts have considered various scenarios to determine whether the necessary control over the vehicle was present and the outcomes vary depending upon all relevant facts and circumstances.

Vehicle Requirement

Cars, trucks, and vans are obviously considered to be vehicles for purposes of a DUI. However, people have been convicted of drunk driving while operating motorboats, mopeds, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, electric wheelchairs, golf carts, bicycles, and ATVs. Typically, if the vehicle has wheels and a motor it will qualify as a motor vehicle under the DUI laws.

Intoxication

One way prosecutors prove driver intoxication is through scientific chemical testing of the amount of alcohol in the body, usually by analyzing the breath or blood. A person with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over .08 is considered legally intoxicated. Also, a person with a detectable amount of THC, methamphetamine, morphine, fentanyl, and many prescription drugs is considered to be legally intoxicated or under the influence of a controlled substance.

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 for at least one year and still face the consequences of a DUI charge.

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. Also, the margin of error can be argued if the person’s BAC is very close to the legal limit, .081 for example.

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.

Police also gather important evidence of intoxication by administering standard field sobriety tests (FSTs) at the scene of a traffic stop. Common field sobriety tests include:

  • Finger-to-nose test
  • One legged stand
  • Walk and turn test
  • Horizontal gaze nystagmus test (a twitching of the eye that only occurs if intoxicated)
  • Counting backwards
  • Reciting the alphabet or reciting only a segment of the alphabet

Why were you stopped?

This is the first legal question that needs to be analyzed in any DUI case. The police need a legitimate reason or “probable cause” to pull you over or come in contact with you. Some scenarios are obvious such as when there is an accident or when the driver clearly violates the vehicle code. However, if the probable cause is based upon things like swerving within your own lane of travel or briefly touching the fog line dismissal of the charges can be pursued through what is known as a Suppression Hearing.

Dashcam

In this day and age, most local police departments and the Pennsylvania State Police have dashcams in their patrol vehicles. I always request a copy of the dashcam video as that is a way to test the truthfulness of the arresting officer’s allegations. I have won several suppression hearings and trials through the use of the dashcam video. However, obviously, there are times when the dashcam video does not help my client. In such cases negotiating a favorable outcome is still possible.

First-time offenders

A person with a clean criminal record and with no other DUI offenses can most likely qualify for a first-time offender program known as Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (“ARD”). ARD has at least three main benefits, they are:

  • No jail time
  • Reduced license suspension
  • Expungement of the criminal record upon satisfactory completion

The main reasons a person does not qualify for ARD are 1) they have a criminal record; 2) the DUI involved an accident with serious injuries or 3) a person under the age of 14 was in the car at the time of the DUI.

If you do not qualify for ARD as outlined above you could be facing 72 hours of mandatory jail time, significant fines, a 1 year drivers license suspension and a permanent criminal record.

Second Offense DUI charges

If you are currently charged with a DUI and you had a DUI conviction or were placed into the ARD program within the past 10 years, this current DUI will be treated as a second offense. A second offense DUI charge carries mandatory jail time and a mandatory license suspension if convicted. The amount of jail time and the length of the driver’s license suspension depend upon the blood alcohol content (“BAC”), or whether or not there were controlled substances or drugs in your system or whether or not you refused chemical testing. The mandatory minimums are summarized below.

  • If you had a BAC between .080 and .099 the mandatory jail time is 5 days and the applicable license suspension is 12 months.
  • If your BAC is between .100 and .159 the mandatory jail time is 30 days and the applicable license suspension is 12 months.
  • If your BAC is .160 or higher, or if you had controlled substances or drugs in your system the mandatory jail time is 90 days and the applicable license suspension is 18 months.
  • You should be eligible for an Ignition Interlock License after serving half of these suspensions. This means you can legally drive by installing the interlock system in the vehicle you will be driving and by following PennDOT’s the application process.

Alternatives to jail

House Arrest, also known as electronic monitoring, is often an option if you are facing a second or subsequent DUI charge.