If convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) in California, the penalties you'll face depend on a number of circumstances. The facts of the case and characteristics of the offender—often categorized as "aggravating and mitigating factors"—normally come into play whether the conviction results from a plea bargain or jury verdict. But the maximum and minimum penalties a judge can impose are set by statute. In large part, these allowable sentencing ranges depend on the number of prior DUI convictions the defendant has.
This article covers California's DUI laws and the penalties for a DUI conviction.
California's DUI laws apply to all drivers. However, stricter standards apply to commercial and underage drivers.
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.
The penalties you'll face for a DUI conviction depend on a number of factors. But the most significant factor is typically the number of prior convictions. Below we provide the penalties for a first, second, and third DUI conviction.
In California, a DUI generally counts as a prior conviction for ten years. So, a DUI that occurred more than ten years ago disappears for purposes of determining whether a current DUI is a second or subsequent offense.
A first DUI conviction in California is a misdemeanor and generally carries:
To learn more about the penalties for a first DUI in California, see our California first-offense article.
A second DUI conviction is a misdemeanor in California and generally carries:
To learn more about the penalties for a second DUI in California, see our California second-offense article.
In California, a third DUI is typically a misdemeanor and generally carries:
To learn more about the penalties for a third DUI in California, see our California third-offense article.
DUIs with injuries. If you injure someone in a DUI accident, you'll generally be facing more severe penalties than you would for a standard DUI. Injury DUIs are "wobblers"—meaning they can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. If charged as a felony, an injury DUI can result in a prison sentence of 16 months to four years. And depending on the defendant's history, fines for an injury DUI can range from $390 to $5,000.
DUIs with fatalities. DUI offenders who cause the death of another person are typically prosecuted under the state's vehicular manslaughter or murder laws. A defendant in this situation could be charged with:
The penalties for these offenses vary greatly. At the low end—for a misdemeanor negligent-vehicular-manslaughter-while-intoxicated conviction—an offender is looking at up to a year in jail and a maximum $1,000 in fines. But a second-degree murder conviction is a felony and carries 15 years to life in state prison.
In California, a fourth DUI within ten years can be charged as a felony offense. A felony fourth DUI carries 16 months to four years in prison and $390 to $1,000 in fines.
A driver who has a past felony DUI conviction that occurred within the past ten years can be charged with a felony DUI for the current offense, even if the offense didn't involve any aggravating factors. The penalties for a conviction include 16 months to four years in prison and $390 to $1,000 in fines.
Underage drivers in California can also be convicted of a "zero-tolerance" offense for having a BAC of .01% or an "underage DUI" for having a BAC of .05% or more. In other words, California has two types of DUI restrictions that apply to underage drivers.
California's implied consent laws require minors who are lawfully detained for DUI to submit to a preliminary alcohol screening test (breathalyzer). Underage motorists who are caught driving with a BAC of .01% or more can be convicted of a zero-tolerance offense, which is an infraction.
A zero-tolerance conviction carries up to $250 in fines and a minimum one-year license suspension.
An underage driver with a BAC of .05% or more can be charged with underage DUI, an infraction.
Strangely, the penalties for an underage DUI typically aren't more severe than those for a zero-tolerance offense. Drivers convicted of an underage DUI face a one-year license suspension and a $100 to $300 fine (depending on whether the driver has prior infraction convictions within the past 12 months). Drivers who are under 21 but at least 18 years old must also complete an alcohol education program as a condition of license reinstatement.
A DUI conviction can lead to severe consequences in California, especially if there are aggravating circumstances. If you've been arrested for a DUI, it's a good idea to talk to a knowledgeable attorney as soon as possible. A qualified DUI lawyer can advise you on the law and help you decide on the best course of action.