Will I Go to Jail for a DUI Conviction?

How much time you can expect to spend behind bars when faced with an impaired driving charge.

Impaired driving is a serious offense that leads to countless death each year. So the DUI laws of all states authorize—and sometimes mandate—judges to sentence DUI offenders with jail time. However, lots of factors can affect how much (if any) time a DUI offender will actually spend behind bars.

This article outlines some of these factors as well as the different ways one might be able to avoid imprisonment.

Mandatory and Potential Jail Time for a DUI Conviction

Most DUI offenses are misdemeanors and carry a maximum six months to a year in jail. Unless statutes mandate a minimum jail sentence (which they often do), judges generally get to decide the duration of an offender's jail sentence. Where there's no mandatory minimum, judges can even decide to order no jail time at all. In making this determination, judges might consider a variety of factors such as the severity of the offense, the harm done, and the offender's history.

The laws of most states require jail time even for a first DUI conviction. (The minimums for a first offense are typically just a few days or so.) And all states have mandatory minimum jail times for DUI offenses involving certain aggravating factors. Here are some examples of situations where mandatory minimums might apply:

  • Repeat offenses. DUI penalties are always structured around how many prior DUI convictions the offender has. In states that don't require jail time for a first offense, a second or subsequent DUI conviction generally does carry a minimum amount of time in jail. Generally, the amount of minimum jail time increases with the number of prior convictions.
  • High BAC. In many states, drivers with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that's well above the legal limit will face mandatory jail or more mandatory jail time than they'd otherwise be facing. For example, some states have these types of minimums for a BAC of .15% or more.
  • Property damage, injuries, or deaths. DUI offenses that involve accidents resulting in property damage, injuries, or deaths generally carry mandatory jail time. Depending on the situation, the driver who causes a DUI accident might expect to spend anywhere from a few weeks to multiple years behind bars.
  • Minor passengers. Many states require minimum jail time for impaired driving offenses involving child passengers. In some states, having a child passenger doubles the normal minimum jail time. In other states, this factor carries a set minimum such as 90 days.
  • Felony DUIs. A variety of aggravating circumstances (for example, multiple prior convictions) can elevate a DUI offense to a felony. Felony DUIs generally carry a minimum of one year in prison.

Although these are some of the most common factors that can lead to mandatory jail time, this isn't an exclusive list. The DUI laws of each state are different, so it's best to talk to a qualified attorney in your area if you have specific questions or concerns.

Avoiding Jail Time on a DUI Case

Most people would like to avoid spending time in jail altogether. Although it might come as a surprise, there are often ways to stay out of jail even with mandatory minimums.

House arrest and electronic monitoring. Many states allow certain DUI offenders to serve their "jail time" under house arrest. Offenders serving time on house arrest might have to use a SCRAM bracelet (which monitors alcohol consumption) or some other type of electronic monitoring device.

DUI probation. The term "mandatory minimum" is somewhat misleading. In many states, judges can "suspend" mandatory jail time by placing the offender on probation. However, some states require DUI offenders to spend at least 48 to 96 hours in jail before starting probation.

First-offender programs. Many states offer alternative sentencing programs for DUI first offenders. These programs typically require participants to complete some type of rehabilitation or substance abuse education but provide an opportunity for offenders to avoid incarceration.

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