Have you or a close friend or family member recently been charged with a DUI?
If so, it is important for you to understand not only what a DUI is, but also the legal ramifications of these charges as well as your rights.
Read on to learn more about DUI law.
Table of Contents
What is a DUI?
The first step in understanding your rights as they relate to a DUI is learning more about what, exactly, a DUI consists of.
A DUI, which stands for Driving Under The Influence, is a criminal offense that occurs when you have been found to have either alcohol or drugs in your system while you are operating your vehicle.
Because the vast majority of DUI’s involve alcohol, this discussion will be limited to alcohol-related offenses.
If you have been arrested for DUI due to drugs, legal or illegal, you should retain the services of an attorney.
Depending on your state, this charge can also be referred to as Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) or, less commonly, Operating Under the Influence (OUI).
Regardless of how this offense is referred to in your state, driving under the influence of alcohol is always illegal, with a 0.08% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) serving as the standard legal limit across all 50 states. These legal limits can vary depending on your age and the type of vehicle you are operating.
For instance, drivers that are under 21 years of age can be charged with a DWI with a blood alcohol level of 0.02%.
Similarly, lower BAC limits apply to drivers that are operating commercial vehicles, airplanes, and boats.
A DUI and drunk driving are not necessarily one in the same
Oftentimes, DUIs are incorrectly referred to as “drunk driving,” however, this can be misleading for two surprising reasons.
You can be charged with a DUI without being drunk.
As previously mentioned, a driver can be charged with a DUI anytime their BAC is over the legal limit of 0.08%.
However, different individuals have different tolerances, so just because a driver’s BAC is above 0.08% does not necessarily mean that they feel drunk or even impaired.
You can be charged with a DUI even if you are not actually driving.
According to DUI laws in the majority of states, a driver can be charged with a DUI if they are in “physical control” of the vehicle or operating the vehicle.
This means that a driver can receive DUI charges even if they are not actually driving their vehicle (for instance, if they are “sleeping it off” on the side of the road or even in their driveway).
Even if the car is off and he is asleep, the driver can be charged with DUI as long as he had access to the keys.
The Legal Ramifications of a DUI
Background on DUI penalties in the United States
The penalties for DUIs vary greatly depending on many factors, with every state having different laws surrounding DUI offenses.
In certain states, such as Arizona, Georgia, and Tennessee, jail time is a mandatory requirement — even for those that are first-time offenders.
Other states, like Connecticut, Indiana, and California are more lenient and do not have mandatory jail requirements for first offenses.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, a first DUI infraction is not even classified as a crime, but rather a civil infraction resulting in only a ticket.
Implied Consent laws
Within the United States, “implied consent” laws require that all licensed drivers agree to field sobriety tests and/or chemical tests or blood tests to check blood alcohol concentration (BAC) if it is suspected that they are driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
According to these laws, if a motorist refuses testing, they can potentially have their driver’s license suspended in addition to other penalties.
The penalties for refusing to submit to a breathalyzer or blood tests differ depending on the state.
However, typically states have an automatic license suspension of either six or 12 months in place for motorists that refuse BAC testing.
For motorists that have previous DUI convictions, a BAC test refusal can impose even harsher penalties such as jail time.
DUI penalties in the state of Tennessee
Within the state of Tennessee, the penalties and fines for a DUI charge differ depending on many factors, most importantly the offender’s DUI record.
First-time DUI offenders
First-time offenders typically face anywhere from 48 hours to 11 months and 29 days of jail time, fines ranging from $350 to $1,500, and a one-year revocation of their driver’s license, and mandatory installation of an interlock device in their vehicle, in addition to other penalties.
If the BAC is 0.20% or more, the jail time increases to a mandatory minimum of seven days instead of two.
When charged with a DUI for the second time, you may be penalized with anywhere from 45 days to 11 months and 29 days in jail, fines ranging from $600 to $3,500, mandatory installation of an interlock device in their vehicle, and potential vehicle seizure, in addition to other penalties.
Third-time DUI offenders
If you are charged with a DUI for the third time, you face similarly increased penalties which include 120 days to 11 months, 29 days of jail time, fines ranging from $1,100 to $10,000, six to ten-year license revocation, installation of an interlock device and potential vehicle seizure, in addition to other penalties.
DUI offenders reaching fourth or subsequent charges face class E felony charges, one year of jail time, an eight-year license revocation, enormous fines, possibly being declared a Habitual Traffic Offender, potential vehicle seizure, and other penalties.
DUI Charges and your Rights in Tennessee
The legal ramifications of a DUI charge can be extremely serious—resulting in jail time, hefty fines, and even loss of a driver’s license—which is why it is important to know your rights if you are pulled over for a suspected DUI.
First things first: What to do if you are pulled over
A typical scenario is as follows: it is late at night and suddenly you see blue lights in your rearview mirror.
You pull over, the officer approaches your vehicle and you open your window.
He points his flashlight in your eyes and asks for your license and registration.
He will tell you why he pulled you over: you were speeding, you have a brake light out, you were weaving, or something else.
If he suspects you of driving under the influence by looking at your eyes, smelling your breath, hear you slurring your speech, or observing your behavior, the officer will ask you investigative questions to see if an arrest is necessary.
These questions might include things like “Have you been drinking?” or “How much have you had to drink?”
At this stage, you are not protected by Miranda Rights, since no arrest has been made; however, you have no legal obligation to answer these questions.
If you can honestly answer that you have not been drinking, then, by all means, do so.
However, if this is not the case, it is best to politely inform the officer that you are choosing to remain silent.
At this point, if the officer suspects you of driving under the influence, he will probably politely, but insistently, ask you to exit your vehicle and perform Field Sobriety Tests, which are a series of actions that are designed to be very difficult to perform if you are impaired.
If you do not do well on these tests, he will handcuff you, place you under arrest, and put you in the back of his vehicle.
A recent change to the law allows the officer to insist on having you blow into a breathalyzer or submit to a blood test, even for a first-time offense.
Worst-case scenario: What to do if you are arrested
If you are placed under arrest, the arresting officer is required by law to inform you of your Miranda Rights if they intend to intentionally question you further in a custodial interrogation.
During this interrogation, you have the right to remain silent, as well as the right to speak with an attorney.
Once you have been informed of these rights, anything you choose to say to the arresting officer can be used during your prosecution.
If the arresting officer does NOT inform you of your Miranda Rights and proceeds with an intentional custodial interrogation, anything that you say can potentially be excluded from evidence.
However, any incriminating statements that you make in casual conversation can be potentially used against you as evidence.
When to Hire a DUI Attorney
Although hiring a DUI attorney to represent you in court is not mandatory, it is always desirable, and there are many instances where it is extremely important.
Hiring an attorney that is knowledgeable about DUI law may result in reduced charges, a reduced sentence, allowing you to serve your time within 30 days of pleading guilty, possibly having your charges dropped, and certainly will have the effect of making you more knowledgeable about what your options are, more prepared when you get to court, and not facing any unpleasant surprises.
When you do need to hire a DUI attorney
However, if your case is not as straightforward as the circumstances detailed above, it may be beneficial to hire a DUI Law attorney to protect your rights and minimize your sentence.
The situations below are examples of when it is best to hire an attorney sooner rather than later:
- If this is not your first time being arrested for a DUI,
- If you do not think that you are guilty,
- If you are a commercial driver,
- If you were arrested for DUI because of drugs as opposed to alcohol,
- If injury or death resulted from your DUI.
As you can see, a DUI arrest can have a major impact on your life for years to come, so it is important to understand what a DUI is, the legal consequences of a DUI, your rights when it comes to a DUI arrest, and when it is time to hire an attorney.