California Drunk Driving Laws, Penalties, and Consequences

Learn about the penalties for a DUI conviction in California.

California’s DUI laws prohibit all motorists from driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more. A person is considered “under the influence” if substantially affected by drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two.

For certain drivers, stricter BAC standards apply. Commercial drivers can be arrested for a DUI for driving with a BAC of .04% or more. And California has “zero tolerance” laws making it illegal for underage drivers (those under 21 years old) to get behind the wheel with a BAC of .01% or more.

In most states, a motorist can be charged with a DUI for being in “actual physical control” of a vehicle while under the influence. In other words, actual driving is sufficient but not required to be convicted. In California, however, proof of driving is required for a DUI conviction—being in actual physical control isn’t enough.

California Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limits and Per Se DUIs

Generally, a drunk driving offense based on BAC—as opposed to the driver’s level of impairment—is known as a “per se” DUI. The amount of alcohol a person must drink to reach the legal limit depends on a number of factors. These include:

  • gender
  • body size
  • number and strength of drinks
  • the time period over which the drinks were consumed
  • whether the driver has eaten anything, and
  • certain medical conditions that can affect how the body metabolizes alcohol.

You can get a BAC estimate using our BAC calculator or looking at our BAC table. But remember, these are just approximations that don’t take into consideration all the factors that can affect BAC. If you plan on drinking, don’t get behind the wheel.

California DUI Penalties

The penalties for a DUI in California vary based on the circumstances of the case. However, the law provides ranges of allowable penalties that are, for the most part, dependent on how many prior convictions the defendant has. In California, a DUI conviction will stay on your record and count as a prior for ten years. Here are what the possible sentences look like for a first, second, and third DUI.

1st Offense2nd Offense3rd Offense
Jail Up to 6 months 96 hours to 1 year 120 days to 1 year
Fines and Penalties $390 to $1,000 $390 to $1,000 Up to $1,800
License Suspension 6 months 2 years 3 years
Interlock ignition device (IID) 5 months in certain counties 1 year in certain counties 2 years in certain counties

In deciding on an appropriate sentence, a judge or prosecutor (when a sentence is the result of a plea bargain) usually considers various mitigating and aggravating circumstances.

For more specific information on sentencing, see our California DUI penalties article.

Implied Consent and Refusing a Blood Alcohol Test in California

California’s “implied consent” law requires all drivers who are lawfully arrested for driving under the influence to submit to BAC testing. Generally, the driver gets to choose between a blood or breath test.

Drivers who refuse testing must pay a $125 fine and face license suspension. Here are the suspension periods for a first, second, and third refusal.

1st Offense2nd Offense3rd Offense
License suspension 1 year 2 year 3 year

For determining what is a second or third refusal, prior DUI convictions, reckless driving convictions, and refusal-related suspensions count. For example, a motorist with one prior DUI and one prior reckless driving conviction who refuses testing would face a three-year suspension for the refusal.

Plea Bargaining in California DUI Cases

If you get charged with a DUI in California, you might be hoping to get the charge dismissed altogether. However, unless the court throws out evidence that’s critical to prove the charge, it’s unlikely a prosecutor will agree to a complete dismissal. But in some cases, a reduction to a “wet reckless” charge is possible. A wet reckless is defined as an alcohol-related reckless driving offense. In terms of severity, the penalties for a wet reckless fall somewhere between those for a DUI and standard reckless driving charge.

California’s SR-22 Requirements

To get your license reinstated following a DUI-related suspension, your insurance company will need to file an “SR-22” with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). An SR-22 is a certificate that verifies you have met the minimum insurance requirements.

An SR-22 is also a requirement for obtaining a “hardship license” to drive to and from places like work and school during a DUI suspension.

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