More so than with other criminal offenses, the possible penalties for a driving under the influence (DUI) conviction depend on how many prior convictions the driver has. DUI recidivism has always been a problem. Legislatures have responded to this problem by dramatically increasing the penalties for DUI offenders with prior impaired driving convictions.
However, states differ quite a bit in how they count prior DUI convictions and how prior DUI convictions can impact an offender's sentence. Here are the basics of how it works in different states.
The DUI penalties in every state are structured around how many prior convictions the offender has. So the number of qualifying priors is generally the most important factor in determining the possible penalties for a DUI conviction. This determination typically requires that we look at two parts:
These factors might seem straightforward, but there are lots of state-specific nuances that require some explanation.
Out-of-state convictions. Courts generally consider both in-state and out-of-state prior convictions when counting DUI priors. So, if you have two prior DUI convictions that occurred in Oregon and now you're convicted of a DUI in California, you'll be looking at third-offense DUI penalties.
Underage DUI convictions. All states have underage DUI laws that apply only to drivers who are under the age of 21. Generally, underage DUI convictions aren't counted as prior DUI convictions.
Boating under the influence. State laws that prohibit operating a boat while under the influence (BUI) are typically quite similar to state DUI laws. And many states count BUI prior convictions the same as prior DUIs. For example, an offender who has one prior BUI conviction and is convicted of a DUI will be looking at second-offense DUI penalties.
Vehicular manslaughter and homicide convictions. Many states count prior vehicular manslaughter and homicide convictions as priors for DUI sentencing purposes. However, some states that do this count only vehicular homicide and manslaughter offenses that involved the driver being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Wet reckless convictions. Some states have an offense called "wet reckless" that's basically a reckless driving offense that involves alcohol. Generally, a wet reckless conviction counts as a DUI prior.
DUI diversions. Lots of states have DUI diversion programs that allow program participants to get their DUI charges dismissed. However, diversions are generally counted as DUI priors if the participant gets convicted of another DUI in the future.
Even if an offender has a prior DUI conviction, it may not actually be counted as a prior if it occurred a long time ago. Most states have a "washout" or "lookback" period. Convictions that are older than the lookback period aren't counted as DUI priors. In most states, the washout period is seven to ten years. However, some states don't have washout periods and count DUI priors no matter how long ago they occurred.
In some states, the way washout periods work is a little more complicated. For example, in some states, there's a washout period that applies to prior misdemeanor DUIs, but felony DUIs never wash out. Some states also have different washout periods for license-related penalties as opposed to criminal penalties like jail time and fines. For example, in some states, a DUI might wash out after seven years for purposes of criminal penalties but be counted for ten years for purposes of determining the length of a license suspension.
The term "washout" is somewhat misleading. Although a conviction might wash out for purposes of sentencing on a new DUI, the prior conviction will generally still be on the driver's criminal record and show up on a background check.
If you've been arrested for or charged with driving under the influence, it's always a good idea to talk to an attorney as soon as possible. The DUI laws are different in every state, and the facts of each case are unique. An experienced DUI attorney can help you understand what you're facing and advise you on the best course of action.