Pennsylvania’s DUI Laws and Conviction Penalties

The consequences of a misdemeanor and felony DUI in Pennsylvania.

Like other states, Pennsylvania prohibits impaired driving. Pennsylvania has a number of classifications of DUI (driving under the influence) offenses that can carry different penalties.

This article outlines what conduct can lead to a DUI conviction as well as many of the possible penalties for a DUI conviction in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania's DUI Laws

A person can be convicted of driving under the influence when he or she was driving, operating, or in actual physical control of a motor vehicle:

  • while "under the influence" of alcohol or any other intoxicating substance
  • with any amount of a listed controlled substance in their system, or
  • with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least .08%.

In other words, a DUI conviction can be based on actual impairment or a failed BAC or drug test.

How Pennsylvania Defines Driving, Operation, and Actual Physical Control

Pennsylvania's DUI law specifically makes it illegal to "drive, operate, or be in actual physical control" of the movement of a motor vehicle while under the influence. Most DUI offenses start with a traffic violation like speeding or swerving and there's no question that the motorist was driving or operating the vehicle. However, under Pennsylvania law, the officer doesn't need to witness movement of the vehicle to make a DUI arrest.

A driver can also be convicted of a DUI if he or she has "actual physical control" of the vehicle's machinery or management of the vehicle's movement. Under this standard, the officer can use circumstantial evidence to establish that the driver was about to drive or had driven to the current location while impaired.

Courts have said, however, that merely starting a parked vehicle without posing an immediate threat to the public is not sufficient to establish actual physical control.

Proof of Intoxication for a DUI Offense in Pennsylvania

The second factor required for a DUI conviction is proof of impairment. As previously noted, a DUI can be based on proof of actual intoxication or the amount of drugs or alcohol in the driver's system.

Pennsylvania's Definition of "Under the Influence"

To establish a DUI charge based on impairment, the prosecutor must prove that the consumption of alcohol or drugs rendered the driver incapable of safely driving.

To prove impairment, prosecutors will often call the arresting officer to testify regarding his or her observations during the arrest, such as the driver having slurred speech or poor balance. In some cases, prosecutors also use expert witnesses to explain how certain substances can affect driving abilities.

Pennsylvania's Per Se DUI Offenses

If a chemical test shows that the driver had an unlawful BAC or drug concentration, the driver can be guilty of DUI without proof of actual impairment (often called a "per se DUI").

Per se DUIs based on BAC. A driver with a BAC of .08% or more can be convicted of a DUI. But for certain drivers, the BAC limit is lower. If the offender was operating a commercial motor vehicle (CMV), the limit is reduced to .04% BAC. And for a driver who's under the age of 21, it's illegal to drive with a BAC of .02% or more.

Per se DUIs based on controlled substances. In Pennsylvania, a driver can be convicted of a DUI if a chemical test shows the presence of any listed controlled substance. This list includes street drugs like heroin and cocaine, but also many prescription medications like benzodiazepines and medical marijuana.

A Doctor's Prescription Isn't a Defense to a DUI Charge in Pennsylvania

The fact that a driver had a valid prescription is not a defense to a per se or an impairment-based DUI.

Penalties for a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd DUI Conviction in Pennsylvania

Judges generally have a fair amount of discretion in determining penalties, but the minimum and maximum penalties for a DUI conviction are set by state law. Pennsylvania categorizes offenses based on the number of prior convictions the driver has within the last ten years as well as other factors.

Jail and Fines for Pennsylvania DUI Convictions

A DUI will be categorized into one of three categories based on what (if any) aggravating factors exist. Here are the three types of DUI offenses, the associated factors, and the possible penalties.

General Impairment DUI Convictions

Generally, a DUI will be considered a general impairment DUI if the offender had a BAC of .08% to .10%.

1st Offense

2nd Offense

3rd Offense


6 months of probation

5 days to 6 months

10 days to 2 years



$300 to $2,500

$500 to $5,000

High-Rate DUI Convictions

A DUI will be considered a high-rate DUI if the driver was operating a commercial motor vehicle, was under the age of 21, or had a BAC was at least .10%, but less than .16%. A DUI that involved injury or property damage will also be considered a high-rate DUI.

1st Offense

2nd Offense

3rd Offense


48 hours to 6 months

30 days to 6 months

90 days to 5 years


$500 to $5,000

$750 to $5,000

$1,500 to $10,000

Highest Rate DUI Convictions

Finally, the highest-rate DUI is any DUI that involved a BAC of .16% or more, a chemical test refusal (explained later on), drug-based impairment, or a positive test for a listed controlled substance.

1st Offense

2nd Offense

3rd Offense (Felony)


72 hours to 6 months

90 days to 5 years

1 to 5 years


$1,000 to $5,000

$1,500 to $10,000

$2,500 to $10,000

Pennsylvania's Substance Abuse Evaluation Requirement for DUI Offenders

Regardless of the category or level of offense, all persons convicted of a DUI must complete a drug and alcohol evaluation. The purpose of this evaluation is to assess the offender for chemical dependencies and recommend a proper treatment program. The recommendations will often be adopted by the judge as part of the offender's sentence.

A state-approved alcohol highway safety class is required for all first- and second-offense DUIs.

Pennsylvania DUI Probation

Rather than imposing the full maximum jail term, judges will often place DUI offenders on probation. Probation can involve requirements such as random drug and alcohol testing, monitored sobriety, community service, and attendance at a victim impact panel.

Pennsylvania's Enhanced DUI Penalties for Transporting a Minor Passenger

An offender who was transporting a minor passenger will face penalties in addition to the standard DUI penalties. If the driver was transporting a minor passenger, he or she will:

  • pay a fine of at least $1,000 and serve 100 hours of community service for a first-offense DUI
  • pay a fine of at least $2,500 and serve one to six months in jail for a second-offense DUI, and
  • serve six months to two years in jail for a third or subsequent DUI.

The driver's license suspension period for the DUI will also be increased to 18 months. And a first- and second-offense DUI will be elevated to a first-degree misdemeanor.

License-Related Penalties for Pennsylvania DUI Offenses

Getting arrested for driving under the influence in Pennsylvania will typically result in driver's license penalties. These penalties vary depending on the number of prior DUI-related incidents, the driver's cooperation with testing, and other factors.

License-related penalties can result from a DUI arrest and/or conviction.

Pennsylvania's Implied Consent Law

Pennsylvania's "implied consent" law requires all drivers who are lawfully arrested for driving under the influence to submit to a breath or blood test. These tests are used to determine the presence, type, and concentration of any consumed drugs or alcohol. Drivers who refuse to comply with an officer's request for testing will typically face penalties for the refusal.

License Revocation for Test Refusals in Pennsylvania

For drivers who refuse to comply with a lawful test request, the officer will submit a report of the arrest and refusal to the Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT will then issue a notice suspending the driver's license for:

  • 12 months for a first offense (plus a $500 reinstatement fee)
  • 18 months for a second offense (plus a $1,000 reinstatement fee), and
  • 18 months for a third or subsequent offense (plus a $2,000 reinstatement fee).

License Revocation for Pennsylvania DUI Convictions

While a first-offense general impairment DUI does not carry mandatory license suspension, all other DUI convictions have a mandatory suspension period. A driver convicted of DUI will be suspended for the following periods:

  • 12 months for a second- or third-offense general impairment DUI, a first or second-offense high-rate DUI, or a first-offense highest-rate DUI, and
  • 18 months for a third-offense high-rate DUI or a second- or third-offense highest-rate DUI.

A driver who refuses testing and is convicted of DUI will serve both suspensions back-to-back.

Pennsylvania's Ignition Interlock Requirements

After serving the license suspension period, drivers are required to install and maintain an ignition interlock device (IID) for one year. During this time, the driver is only allowed to operate vehicles equipped with an IID.

Drivers can also apply to begin the IID period early and gain restricted limited driving privileges while serving the suspension. Offenders with prior DUI offenses must serve at least half of the suspension period prior to installing the IID and obtaining restricted privileges.

Pennsylvania's Underage DUI Laws

As previously noted, drivers who are under the age of 21 can be convicted of a DUI for operating a vehicle with a BAC of .02% or more. The penalties a driver faces for this type of DUI conviction are the same as those all other drivers face for a DUI conviction.

However, drivers who are under the age of 21 can also be cited for a violation for being caught driving with a measurable amount of alcohol in their system that's less than .02%. This type of violation carries a $100 fine and a three-month license suspension.

Pennsylvania's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition

Pennsylvania has a DUI alternative sentencing program called the "Accelerated Rehabilitation Program." Participants in the program must complete a highway safety program, substance abuse treatment, and six to twelve months of court-supervised sobriety and license suspension. Successful completion of the program results in the dismissal of the DUI charges.

However, drivers who have a prior DUI that occurred within the last ten years or had a passenger under the age of 14 are not eligible for this program.

Talk with a Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer

A DUI in Pennsylvania carries serious penalties, so getting legal assistance is important. An experienced DUI lawyer can explain what you're facing and the options that might be available to you.

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