What Happens When You Get Your First DUI?

Ways you may be able to lessen the consequences of a first drunk driving conviction.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

In most states, a DUI (driving under the influence) conviction—even a first offense—will result in fines, license suspension, and possible jail time. A DUI conviction can also have negative effects on employment, education, and personal and family life.

However, there are often ways to minimize these penalties and consequences. Here are some of the options that might be available to lessen the impact of a first DUI conviction.

What to Expect If You're Arrested for a First DUI

Lots of people who wouldn't ordinarily have any experience with the criminal justice system end up getting arrested for driving under the influence. If this happens to you, it might not turn out as bad as you think it will.

Here's a rundown of what you can expect in terms of penalties.

Jail Time for a First DUI

In the majority of states, the maximum possible jail time for a first DUI conviction is six months or a year. However, people rarely get the maximum for a first offense. Most states either don't have mandatory minimums or have minimums of just a few days for a first DUI.

So what's likely to actually happen if you're arrested for a first DUI? For a first DUI, most people spend no time or a very short time in jail. Most commonly, a first DUI conviction results in a few days or less behind bars.

Fines and Costs of a First DUI

The fines and fees for a first DUI conviction vary quite a bit by state. But, in many states, a first offense will end up costing the convicted motorists around $500 to $2,000.

However, hidden costs like increased insurance premiums and attorney fees can also get expensive.

License Suspension for a First DUI

A first DUI conviction will normally lead to at least some period of license suspension. Depending on the state, a first offense will generally result in a license suspension of several months to a year.

However, many states allow drivers to apply for restricted driving privileges for going to and from places like work and school.

DUI Court and Diversion Programs for 1st DUIs

Many states have DUI first-offender programs that can significantly mitigate the penalties of a DUI offense. These programs go by different names—for example, some states use the term "DUI court" and Oregon has a "DUII diversion program"—but they generally all provide eligible offenders with an opportunity to avoid at least some of the consequences that would otherwise result from a DUI conviction.

Eligibility for First-Offender DUI Programs

The eligibility requirements for diversion and DUI court programs vary by state. But these programs typically won't accept applicants whose cases involve significant aggravating factors like extremely high blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) or injuries. Also, first-offender programs are generally available only to offenders who don't have any prior DUI convictions.

DUI First-Offender Program Benefits

The benefits of diversion and DUI programs also vary depending on the state. However, offenders who successfully complete their program can often avoid jail time, license suspension, and a criminal conviction.

DUI First-Offender Program Requirements

In exchange for these benefits, program participants will be subject to certain requirements like drug or alcohol abuse assessments and treatment, drug and alcohol testing, and having to use an ignition interlock device (IID).

Plea Bargaining in a First-Offense DUI Case

Plea bargaining is another way to minimize the damage if you're charged with driving under the influence. The laws of each state set the minimum and maximum penalties for a DUI conviction.

What It Means to "Plea Bargain"

Generally, plea bargaining involves reaching an agreement with the prosecution for penalties that are at the low end of the spectrum. In other words, the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to the DUI charge in exchange for penalties that are less severe than they otherwise could be.

"Wet Reckless" Plea Bargains

In some cases, a driver who's charged with a DUI might be able to negotiate a plea deal for a reckless driving charge. This type of plea bargain is sometimes called a "wet reckless." The penalties for reckless driving are somewhat less serious than they are for a DUI.

Fighting a DUI Charge

Depending on the circumstances, fighting a DUI charge in court might be another good option. If you're successful at beating a DUI charge, you generally won't have to deal with the consequences discussed above.

DUI Defenses

Of course, the facts of every case are different. But DUI defenses often focus on possible weaknesses in the prosecution's evidence or arrest procedures that might have overstepped the defendant's constitutional rights. For example, defendants often dispute the reliability of the prosecution's evidence related to blood alcohol concentration. And in some cases, there might be a good argument that the traffic stop itself was illegal.

Deciding Whether to Go to Trial on a DUI Charge

In deciding whether to fight a DUI charge—or just how to handle your situation in general—it's always best to get in contact with an experienced DUI attorney who can help evaluate your options. Even if you ultimately decide to admit guilt, a DUI attorney can guide you through the process and advise you on things like how to obtain a restricted license to drive to and from work during a license suspension.

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