What are the Chances of Going to Jail for a Driving Offense?

Can a DUI or other serious driving charge land you in the slammer?

Although no statistician has determined the odds of going to jail for a driving offense, the following conclusions can be made based on existing statistics:

  • Vehicular homicide: A defendant is likely to go to jail if someone dies as a result of driving carelessly.
  • 1st DUI: Depending on the state, a defendant may go to jail (and it is mandatory in a few states).
  • 2nd DUI: Depending on the state, a defendant may go to jail (and it is mandatory in many states).
  • Location: Getting sentenced to jail time sometimes has more to do with where you are than what you did. Know your state’s laws.

Vehicular Homicide: A Defendant Is Likely To Go To Jail If Someone Dies As a Result Of Driving Carelessly

Although it’s known by various names (vehicular homicide, homicide by vehicle, vehicular manslaughter, etc.) the charge is typically that the defendant negligently operated a motor vehicle which resulted in someone’s death. A few states do not have vehicular homicide laws – Alaska, Montana and Arizona – and in these states, defendants are usually charged with manslaughter or murder, depending on the circumstances. For example, a drunk driver in Alaska who kills someone might be charged with criminally negligent homicide, second-degree murder, or manslaughter depending on the defendant’s conduct.

The victim. Vehicular homicide statutes may include a broad range of victims including a pedestrian, a passenger in the defendant’s car, a cyclist or another driver. Surprisingly, a 2000 Harvard University report entitled The Determinants of Punishment: Deterrence, Incapacitation and Vengeance, reported that drivers who kill women get 56 percent longer sentences. The authors of the study proposed that sentence lengths are sometimes driven in part by a taste for vengeance motivated by victim characteristics.

Typically, the prosecutor in a vehicular manslaughter case must prove that the driver violated some law - regardless of whether it is a felony or misdemeanor violation – and that the violation resulted in death. In other words, even if you commit a minor misdemeanor infraction, you may be convicted of vehicular homicide. Of course, sentences vary and some states may have varying degrees of vehicular homicide with varying sentencing guidelines. The less egregious the circumstances, the more likely that the defendant will serve less than one year in jail (or even a suspended sentence). However, in some states, such as Louisiana, conviction for vehicular homicide results in mandatory jail time.

Note that vehicular homicide laws do not require an intent to cause injury or death. They are all based on the concept of negligence or gross negligence – that death resulted because of carelessness or a reckless disregard for the safety of others.

The greatest number of vehicular homicide charges are brought because the driver was intoxicated or distracted. These two types of offenses caused the greatest number of driver-related fatalities. In 2009, for example, drunken driving caused over 12,000 traffic fatalities while distracted driving is believed to have caused almost 5,500 deaths the same year, according to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration. Many states have special vehicular homicide codes that enhance penalties if the driver was intoxicated.

1st DUI: Depending on the State, A Defendant May Go To Jail (And It Is Mandatory In A Few States)

Depending on the state where you’re arrested, you may spend time in jail for a first-time DUI. In Alaska, Tennessee and Georgia, it’s pretty much guaranteed as these states routinely require some jail time for first offenders. Curiously, in the case of first time offenders, jail doesn't have much effect on whether they will do it again. James Fell, a senior program director for the Alcohol, Policy and Safety Research Center in Maryland told USA Today in 2011. To learn more about the laws regarding First-Time DUIs, check out your state’s first-time offender laws. Factors that may influence whether you receive jail time or a suspended sentence include local court policies, your impairment level, whether minors were involved, aggravating factors (speeding, distracted driving), and whether you refused to submit to a drug test.

Second DUI: Depending on the State, A Defendant Is Likely to Go To Jail (And It Is Mandatory In Many States)

Many states require mandatory jail time for second-offender DUIs. Often, that’s because the status of the crime in the state jumps from misdemeanor (1st DUI) to felony (2nd DUI), putting the violation into a more serious category. (To learn more about the laws regarding Second-Offense DUIs, check out your state’s second-offender laws.) Factors that may influence whether you receive jail time or a suspended sentence include local court policies, your impairment level, whether minors were involved, whether your drunk driving resulted in an accident, aggravating factors (speeding, distracted driving), and whether you refused to submit to a drug test.

Jail Time Is Often A Result Of Location: Know Your State’s Laws

Although it may obvious to most drivers, sentencing for crimes varies from state to state, county to county and often from court to court. Where judges have leeway in sentencing, many personal factors come into play. According to USA Today, the same infraction may result in jail time in one jurisdiction, yet a suspended sentence if committed several hundred yards away. For this reason, it’s best to familiarize yourself with state driving laws, and if possible to consult with a local attorney who is familiar with sentencing practices.

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