Every driver in California already knows that driving under the influence is against the law, but you may not realize that it’s considered a quite serious crime. You also may not know how severe and extensive the consequences of driving under the influence can be if you’re charged and convicted – even for a misdemeanor first offense. Every case is different, of course, so this is only a brief look at some basic facts regarding DUI that every California driver should know.

Most motorists in California do not realize that when you are charged with DUI in this state, you actually have two separate obstacles to retaining your driver’s license; the “administrative” action of the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and the legal process of prosecution in the criminal courts. If you are arrested for driving under the influence, the DMV automatically suspends your driver’s license unless you contact – within ten days – your local DMV office and ask for a license suspension hearing.

If you are 21 years of age or older, and you were driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level at or above the 0.08 percent limit, your driver’s license can be administratively suspended by the DMV for four months. An Orange County DUI attorney can argue on your behalf – and against the license suspension – at a DMV hearing, but with only a ten-day window, you’ll have to contact a good DUI lawyer immediately.

HOW ARE DUI PENALTIES DETERMINED IN CALIFORNIA?

The exact criminal penalties for a misdemeanor first-offense DUI conviction – as opposed to the administrative penalties – will hinge on several factors. The legal drinking age in California is 21, and the state has a no-tolerance policy regarding underage drinking, so the DUI penalties are somewhat different for younger drivers. DUI penalties are also somewhat different – meaning more severe – for professional drivers with commercial drivers’ licenses in California.

For California adult drivers who are age 21 and older, sentencing will depend on the specific circumstances and details of the DUI incident. If you are convicted, you will have at least the minimum penalties imposed, and those minimum penalties can be “enhanced” for a number of reasons.

The penalties for an adult convicted of a misdemeanor first-offense DUI in California can include:

  • four days to six months in a county jail
  • a fine ranging from $390 to $1000
  • probation for three to five years
  • participation in a court-ordered alcohol education class or treatment program
  • a driver’s license suspension (separate from the administrative suspension) ranging from thirty days to ten months
  • court-ordered installation of an ignition interlock device (IID) on the offender’s personal vehicle in Los Angeles, Alameda, Sacramento, and Tulare counties – and statewide beginning in 2019

In some cases, a sentencing “enhancement” penalty – more time in jail, a stiffer fine, or a longer license suspension – may be added to the basic DUI penalty. This state enhances DUI penalties – even for misdemeanor first offenses – if a driver’s BAC level measured at or above 1.5 percent at the time of the DUI test; if a minor under age 14 was a passenger in the vehicle at the time of the traffic stop; if the driver refused to submit to a chemical DUI test; if the driver caused an injury, death, or property damage; or if the driver was driving more than 20 miles per hour over the speed limit on a surface street or more than 30 miles per hour over the limit on a highway.

Repeat offenders also receive enhanced penalties. The speeding enhancement requires a minimum sixty-day jail sentence. A refusal to submit to chemical DUI testing is punishable by a one-year driver’s license suspension – and 48 hours in jail – with no possibility of obtaining a restricted license.

However, before any enhancement can be added to a DUI sentence, the state must prove the enhancement charge “beyond a reasonable doubt” just as it must prove any other kind of criminal charge.

IS A PLEA BARGAIN POSSIBLE FOR A FIRST DUI CHARGE?

In limited situations, first offenders who are charged with misdemeanor DUI may be offered the chance to plead guilty (or no contest) to the lesser charge of “wet” reckless, a reckless driving charge. The police don’t charge anyone with wet reckless – it is exclusively used by prosecutors, a charge designed to encourage DUI defendants to take the plea bargain and to expedite more cases more quickly through the courts.

If the evidence against a DUI suspect is overwhelming and a conviction is certain, pleading to a wet reckless charge may be the best available alternative. Accepting the plea bargain lets a defendant avoid jail and pay a lower fine.

A plea bargain can also help defendants keep their jobs, because persons convicted of DUI are barred from certain types of employment. However, if you accept a wet reckless plea and you are charged with DUI again in California at any time in the next ten years – and convicted – a wet reckless conviction will count against you for sentencing purposes as a prior DUI conviction.

HOW MUCH WILL ALL OF THIS COST?

We haven’t even mentioned the “real” cost of a first-offense DUI conviction. There’s the fine, of course, ranging from $390 to $1000, and it can be even higher if the sentence is enhanced. You’ll have to pay something for the advice and services of an experienced DUI attorney, but consider that an investment that will save you a great deal if you are acquitted or the charge is reduced or dismissed.

You also need to consider bail, towing fees, and storage fees for your vehicle. If you have to take DUI classes or have an IID installed, you’ll pay “tuition” for the classes and an installation fee – as well as a monthly rental and maintenance fee – for the IID. There’s a reinstatement fee for your driver’s license when the suspension is lifted as well as several other aggravating “court costs” and “legal fees.”

But the real cost of a driving under the influence conviction is the extra-legal cost. Your auto insurance rates will go up and will very likely never come back down. You’ll need alternative transportation while your license is suspended. And if you drive for a living – or if you work at any job that requires driving – you may have to find other work and struggle with unemployment in the interim.

According to the Automobile Club of Southern California, the average final cost of a misdemeanor first-offense DUI conviction in California is a stunning $15,649. Orange County DUI attorney Todd Landgren offers this tip to anyone facing a first DUI charge in California: “Choose a local attorney who has BOTH years of experience and is exceptionally familiar with the Court where your case will be heard.”