Aggravating Factors and Sentencing Enhancements for DUI Convictions

How certain circumstances can enhance the penalties of an impaired driving conviction.

The penalties for driving under the influence (DUI) are severe and typically include thousands of dollars in fines, possible jail time, and consequences for your driver's license and record that can last years. These penalties are exacerbated when the DUI involves certain aggravating factors. Depending on the state, factors that can lead to enhanced DUI penalties might include having minor children in the vehicle, excessive impairment, and causing injuries or property damage. This article discusses some of the factors that often increase the possible penalties for a DUI offense.

How Aggravating Factors Affect DUI Penalties

The impact of aggravating factors on DUI penalties depends mostly on a state's statutes. State DUI statutes generally specify the minimum and maximum penalties for a DUI conviction and the classification (misdemeanor or felony) for each type of DUI offense.

Aggravating factors typically increase possible penalties for a DUI conviction and can elevate the offense classification (in some cases, from a misdemeanor to a felony).

For example, suppose a standard first DUI is a class C misdemeanor and carries a maximum $500 in fines and up to six months in jail in a given state. For the same offense that involves a certain aggravating factor, the offense might be classified as a class A misdemeanor and the possible penalties might be enhanced to a maximum of $1,000 in fines and up to a year in jail.

If a state's statutes don't specifically address a certain aggravating factor, it is up to the judge to decide how the factor should impact sentencing. State laws specify penalty ranges, but the judge will normally consider aggravating and mitigating factors in deciding how to sentence an offender within the allowable ranges.

Factors That Can Increase the Penalties for a DUI Conviction

Almost by definition, DUI offenses involve some sort of other unsafe behavior. However, some DUI aggravating factors focus on circumstances that make drunk driving even more dangerous. Some of the circumstances that fall into this category include:

  • Children in the vehicle. Every state has a variety of laws that aim in different ways to protect children. Along these lines, many states penalize DUI offenses more severely if the driver had minor passengers in the vehicle when the offense occurred. For this type of enhancement, the offender might face up to $1,000 in additional fines and a few extra days in jail. In some states, the possible fines and jail terms are doubled for DUIs involving child passengers.
  • High blood alcohol content. Blood alcohol content (BAC) is proportionally related to the driver's level of impairment. So, drivers with BACs that far exceed the legal limit will often face harsher penalties than drivers with lower BACs. Common penalties for high BACs include longer suspension periods and enhanced minimum jail times.
  • Fleeing from an officer. DUI offenders might face increased penalties (higher fines and extra jail time) for either running from or failing to promptly pull over for police. Fleeing can also result in separate misdemeanor or felony

Some other aggravating factors are aimed at punishing offenders more severely because of the harm they caused. For example, the aggravating factors in many states include:

  • Injuries. Injuries to another person can greatly increase penalties for a DUI and possibly result in the charge being elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony. And, more specifically, the severity of the injuries can have an impact on sentencing. Generally, severe bodily injury will result in greater penalties than if the injuries are only minor.
  • Deaths. DUIs that involve a fatality will almost always carry felony charges and severe penalties. In some circumstances, the convicted driver could face up to life in prison.

The remainder of DUI aggravating factors are geared toward deterrence. These types of sentencing enhancements impose stiff penalties on repeat offenders and offenders who are uncooperative with the DUI investigation.

  • Prior DUI convictions. State DUI penalties are generally structured around the number of prior DUI offenses the driver has. In some states, DUI convictions "wash out" after a certain number of years (usually, seven to ten years) and are no longer counted as priors. In other states, prior DUI convictions count forever. Generally, in-state and out-of-state DUI convictions are counted.
  • Test refusals. During a DUI arrest, the arresting officer will generally ask the driver to submit to a breath, blood, or urine Most states have implied consent laws that require drivers who are lawfully arrested for driving under the influence to submit to testing. Drivers who refuse a chemical test typically face an additional year or two of license suspension or restrictions. In a few states, a refusal can also result in increased fines and jail time.
  • Driving while revoked. An impaired driver who has a suspended or revoked driver's license will face harsh license penalties—especially if he or she was suspended due to a prior DUI. Many states require the initial suspension to restart and will then add another year or two to the suspension period.

The presence of any of these factors will impact how the DUI is charged and how it is penalized.

First-offender programs. Most courts offer reduced penalties or even dismissal for offenders that complete a specified first-offender rehabilitation program. However, drivers that had aggravating factors such as child passengers or high BAC are often ineligible for program participation.

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