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 carries $390 to $1,000 in fines plus a number of "penalty assessments" that can substantially increase the amount the driver has to pay. The total can be several thousand dollars or more.
It's possible for a first offender to receive 48 hours to six months in jail. But if the judge orders probation—which occurs in most cases—there's no mandatory jail time. Oftentimes, judges are lenient on first offenders and don't order time in jail as part of the sentence.
For a first DUI conviction, there's generally a six-month license suspension. There's also a four-month administrative suspension imposed by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) if the driver had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more. (Drivers who refuse BAC testing face a one-year administrative suspension).
However, if two suspensions are imposed, they're typically allowed to overlap. So the driver won't have to complete two full suspensions.
Also, first offenders can generally apply for a restricted license for driving to and from places like work and school. The restricted license requires the use of an ignition interlock device (IID) but allows the motorist to start driving right away. Motorists who opt to not apply for the restricted license will generally be required to install an IID for up to six months after license reinstatement.
First DUI offenders normally receive a three-year term of informal probation (though it can be up to five years). As a condition of probation, the defendant normally must complete a three-month DUI school, consisting of 30 hours of classes. However, for defendants who had BACs of .20% or more, the program is nine months in duration and 60 hours of class time.
A second DUI conviction is a misdemeanor in California. The convicted motorist faces the following penalties.
The fines for a second DUI are the same as those for a first offense: $390 to $1,000 plus penalty assessments.
Second offenders face 96 hours to one year in jail. However, jail time can sometimes be served on house arrest or through jail-alternative work programs.
For a second DUI, there's a two-year suspension that comes from the criminal court and a 12-month administrative suspension for offenses involving a BAC of .08% or more.
The two suspensions, however, are generally allowed to overlap.
And the motorist can apply for a restricted license (for drugged driving the motorist must complete one year of the suspension before applying for the restricted license). All second offenders are required to have an IID for at least 12 months.
Second DUI offenders normally receive a three-year term of informal probation (though it can be up to five years). As a condition of probation, the defendant must complete an 18- or a 30-month DUI school; the judge gets to decide which class to order.
In California, a third DUI is typically a misdemeanor. A conviction carries the following penalties.
As with a first and second offense, the fines for a third DUI are $390 to $1,000 plus penalty assessments.
A third DUI results in a jail sentence of 120 days (30 days if probation is granted and a 30-month DUI school ordered) to one year.
For a second DUI, there's a three-year suspension that comes from the criminal court and a 12-month administrative suspension for offenses involving a BAC of .08% or more.
But the two suspensions are generally allowed to overlap.
And the motorist can apply for a restricted license (for drug DUIs, the driver must first complete 12 months of the suspension). All third offenders must have an IID for at least 2 years.
Most third DUI offenders must complete three to five years of informal probation. As a condition of probation, the judge has the discretion to order a 30-month DUI school.
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.
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.