The state of California imposes stricter sentences on convicted DUI offenders when a driving under the influence offense is accompanied by aggravating circumstances.

If you drive in California – and millions of us do, every day – keep reading to learn these answers:

1. What constitutes an “aggravating” DUI circumstance?
2. When can a DUI sentence be “enhanced” with additional penalties?
3. Exactly what added penalties can be imposed for DUI with aggravating circumstances?

HOW DO THE DUI LAWS WORK IN CALIFORNIA?

It is against the law in California for a driver with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level at or above 0.08 percent to operate any motor vehicle anywhere in the state.

The “legal limit” for DUI is lower for drivers with commercial driver’s licenses (0.04 percent) and for drivers below age 21 (0.01 percent). And alcohol is not the only intoxicant that can impair your driving ability.

You can face criminal charges in California for driving under the influence of any drug – even a legal drug that your doctor has prescribed or recommended – if that drug impairs your ability to operate your vehicle safely.

WHAT ARE THE TYPICAL PENALTIES FOR A FIRST DUI CONVICTION?

A first driving under the influence charge in California with no aggravating circumstances will probably be filed by the state as a misdemeanor. And even without aggravating circumstances or sentencing enhancements, the penalties for a first California DUI conviction are quite serious.

That’s why anyone who is charged with driving under the influence in southern California must be advised and represented by an experienced Orange County DUI attorney. Get an attorney’s help as soon as possible after the arrest.

The penalties for an adult, non-commercial driver who is convicted of a misdemeanor, first-offense DUI in California can include but are not necessarily limited to:

1. up to six months in jail and/or up to five years on probation
2. a fine of up to $1000
3. court-ordered alcohol education classes or treatment
4. a driver’s license suspension (typically lasting four months)

WHAT CONSTITUTES AN AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCE IN A DUI CASE?

However, if “aggravating” circumstances accompany a driving under the influence charge, a defendant may face enhanced penalties if he or she is convicted for DUI. Aggravating circumstances are circumstances that increase the severity of a DUI offense.

In California, a DUI sentence can be enhanced if the defendant is convicted of DUI and:

1. had a previous conviction for driving under the influence within the last ten years
2. measured a blood alcohol content level at or above 0.15 percent
3. refused to submit to a DUI chemical test
4. had a child under age 14 as a passenger
5. caused an accident or bodily injury
6. drove at 20 mph over the limit on a surface street or 30 mph over the limit on a freeway

HOW DO THE SENTENCING ENHANCEMENTS WORK?

By itself, speeding up to 19 mph over the limit does not trigger a DUI sentencing enhancement.

Instead, to convict you for the DUI speeding enhancement, the state must prove that you were driving recklessly while you were under the influence, and the 20 and 30 mph figures are set to establish strong evidence of that recklessness.

But any of the aggravating circumstances listed above can trigger enhanced penalties if the defendant is convicted of driving under the influence.

A sentencing enhancement could be more jail time, a harsher fine, or a lengthier driver’s license suspension, but the DUI speeding enhancement requires a mandatory, additional sixty days behind bars.

IS THERE A SEPARATE CHILD ENDANGERMENT LAW IN CALIFORNIA?

If a passenger under age 14 was along when you were arrested, and if you’re convicted on the initial DUI charge, the penalty enhancement is an extra forty-eight hours in jail for a first DUI conviction, an added ten days for a second offense, and an extra thirty days for a third offense.

California has a separate child endangerment law that is distinct from the DUI enhancement, and in some cases, a prosecutor may choose to skip the enhancement and file a separate, criminal child endangerment charge.

Under California law, a misdemeanor child endangerment conviction can send an offender to jail for up to a year, but a felony child endangerment conviction can put an offender in a state prison for as long as six years.

WHAT IS THE SENTENCING ENHANCEMENT FOR REFUSAL TO TEST?

Refusing to submit to a chemical DUI test is punishable with a one-year license suspension (and 48 hours behind bars), and the offender will not qualify for a restricted license during that year.

Repeat offenders also receive enhanced penalties, and in fact, if it’s someone’s second or third driving under the influence conviction in this state, the enhancement can be quite severe.

However – and anyone charged with DUI in California needs to understand this – before an enhancement penalty can be attached to a sentence for DUI, the state must prove both the initial DUI charge as well as the additional enhancement charge – beyond a reasonable doubt.

WHAT ARE THE OTHER CONSEQUENCES OF A DUI CONVICTION?

With or without aggravating circumstances or penalty enhancements, some of the penalties for a driving under the influence conviction aren’t even legal penalties:

1. Your auto insurance costs will go up – and they won’t come down.

2. You’ll have to find alternative transportation during the period your license is suspended.

3. If you drive for hire or if your job entails driving, you may have to look for other work.

4. If you cause a personal injury or a wrongful death, you’ll probably be sued in civil court by the victim or victims, and that lawsuit will probably prevail.

HOW CAN ALL OF THIS LEGAL TROUBLE BE AVOIDED?

DUI convictions, penalties, aggravating circumstances, and sentencing enhancements are entirely avoidable. A ride-for-hire or a designated driver is always the right transportation choice after drinking.

Driving under the influence is never the right choice under any circumstance or for any reason.

Particularly if a child – yours or anyone else’s – is your passenger, you must make that child’s well-being and best interests your top priority. California prosecutors are tenaciously aggressive in driving under the influence cases that involve children.

WHERE CAN YOU TURN FOR HELP WITH A DUI CHARGE?

Make no mistake. You really must not drink and drive. Any driving under the influence conviction in California has the potential to take your freedom and damage your future.

But whether or not you face sentencing enhancements for aggravating circumstances, in Southern California, if you are arrested and charged with DUI, you must reach out to a skilled Orange County DUI attorney, and you must do it immediately.