DUI Penalties Essay

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Approximately every 20 minutes in the United States someone is either hurt or killed in a vehicular crash involving alcohol, and each day in the United States, 27 people are killed by drunk drivers. In 2011, 9,878 people were killed by drivers who were legally impaired and approximately 35,000 people were injured. In addition to the cost of human lives, impaired driving carries a hefty financial price tag, as it is estimated that drunk driving costs $132 million annually. Since driving under the influence (DUI) is such a pervasive problem, what punishment is appropriate for a crime that causes such a human and financial toll?

In every state in the United States, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or more. Every state also has “implied consent” statutes, which imply a driver’s consent to be chemically tested for drug or alcohol intoxication through the use of public roads and highways. This chemical test can be conducted through blood, breath, or urine. Failure to submit to testing may result in a mandatory suspension of the driver’s license.

Detection of DUI

Law enforcement officers may come into contact with suspected intoxicated drivers several different ways: investigation of an automobile accident, investigation off an anonymous tip of erratic driving, observation of erratic driving, stopping a vehicle for a lesser traffic offense and noticing signs of intoxication, and at sobriety checkpoints. Currently 40 states and the District of Columbia allow sobriety checkpoints to be conducted by law enforcement personnel. The use of checkpoints that are highly publicized and visible has been empirically shown to reduce drunk driving crashes and fatalities. It is believed that high-profile sobriety checkpoint campaigns dissuade drivers from drinking and driving. The object of these checkpoints is not DUI arrests but rather the reduction of intoxicated drivers on the roads.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration publishes a list of DUI symptoms that include: turning with a wide radius; straddling the center or lane marker; appearing to be drunk; almost striking an object; weaving, swerving, drifting, braking or accelerating erratically; slow speed; and driving with headlights off. If an officer’s observations warrant further examination, she or he will have the driver pull over and investigate further. The officer will approach the driver’s window and ask some preliminary questions. During the questioning, the officer will look for signs of intoxication including: the odor of alcohol on the driver’s breath or in the vehicle, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, flushed face, droopy eyelids, unintelligible responses, difficulty in comprehension, fumbling with license and registration, plain-view presence of alcoholic beverages in the vehicle, and/ or the admission of the consumption of alcohol.

If the officer ascertains that there is a reasonable suspicion of driving under the influence, she or he will request that the driver step out of the vehicle. A battery of field sobriety tests (FSTs) is then administered to determine the probability that a driver is impaired. These tests can include tracking an object with the eyes, walking heel-to-toe in a straight line, and standing on one leg. They may also include the administration of a preliminary alcohol screening (PAS), where suspects breathe into a portable testing device. If a subject fails the FSTs and PAS, the officer will arrest the individual, transport them to the police station, advise them of their Miranda rights, and inform them of their legal implied consent obligation to submit to chemical testing.

Range of Penalties

The definition of legal impairment can vary from state to state, but the most common standard for intoxication is a 0.08 percent BAC. While standards for each state may vary, the penalties for driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated (DWI) are generally the same and escalate depending on the number of convictions. The first offense carries a fine of up to $2,000, a sentence of three to 180 days in jail, loss of a driver’s license up to a year, and an annual fee of $1,000 or $2,000 for three years to retain driver license. The second offense is subject to a fine of up to $4,000, a sentence of one month to one year in jail, loss of a driver’s license up to two years, and an annual fee of $1,000, $1,500, or $2,000 for three years to retain a driver’s license. The third offense is a felony and carries a penalty range of a $10,000 fine, two to 10 years in prison, loss of a driver’s license for two years, and an annual fee of $1,000, $1,500, or $2,000 for three years to retain a driver’s license.

Sanctions for DUI can also include home confinement with electronic monitoring, financial sanctions, community service, shaming sanctions, victim restitution, court-ordered visits to and/or volunteer service at emergency departments and chronic physical rehabilitation facilities, and pretrial intervention (PIT) programs. Home confinement sanctions allow for electronic monitoring of the offender and can allow the offender to only leave for work and/or school at the discretion of the sentencing judge. Financial penalties can include fines, court costs, probation fees, costs for ignition interlocks, and/or the cost of public services responding to an offender-involved crash. Fines may be assessed at a predetermined amount or based on a percentage of the offender’s daily income. Community service can be conducted at local community-based organizations such as hospitals, parks, or other state agencies.

Shaming sanctions can include such punishments as publishing the offender’s name in the newspaper, and specialized bumper stickers or license plates that alert the public that the driver has been convicted of a DUI. Bumper stickers are printed with the words “Convicted of a DUI” and must be attached to the offender’s vehicle. Ohio and Minnesota are states that issue specialized license plates to DUI offenders who have driving restrictions. In Ohio, the plates are yellow with plain red lettering and no registration stickers. In Minnesota, the plates are white with either blue or black lettering. The plates are numbered starting with a “W” followed by a letter and four numbers. These plates serve as a warning for other law enforcement personnel and the general public, a shaming mechanism for the offender, and a deterrent for other potential DUI offenders. Another option are “anniversary” punishments that require the offender to do such things as place flowers on their victims’ graves, or send cards or money on the birthdays of the victims.

Additional Penalties

In addition to the penalties listed above, several states have additional sanctions for those individuals convicted of DUI. The supplemental penalties include vehicle forfeiture or impoundment, diversion programs, and ignition interlock devices (IID). Some states allow for the seizure or forfeiture of the convicted DUI offender’s vehicle as a sanction. Several other states require the completion of diversion or DUI programs such as the Victim Impact Panel (VIP). The VIP program is overseen by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and is designed to increase awareness for DUI offenders. The program was created to help restore the physical and emotional well-being of the victims of drunk driving. It also serves to expose DUI offenders to the pain and suffering, as well as the financial toll, of the victims of this crime. Offenders and victims are brought together in a panel forum where victims and their families discuss their personal stories about how drunk driving impacted their lives. The VIP is a sanction most commonly used in conjunction with other sanctions as an effort to show offenders the consequences of their actions.

Another sanction is the installation of interlock devices on the vehicles of convicted DUI offenders. The purpose of ignition interlock devices is to deter the operation of vehicles where the driver has a BAC over the legal limit and to protect the safety of property and persons that potential could be harmed by an impaired driver. The IID is mounted to the dashboard of the vehicle, and before the motor can be started, the driver is required to exhale into the device to have his or her BAC measured. If the BAC is higher than the preset limit, the vehicle will not start. Almost all 50 states have laws that allow ignition interlock as a sentencing option for DUI offenders. Most states allow judges to order IID as a probation condition, or it can be used as a specific sanction.

Effectiveness of Sanctions

Research indicates that licensing sanctions, vehicle actions, assessment and rehabilitation, and alternative sentencing options have shown to be the sanctions that work best in dealing with DUI offenders. Research also shows that using a combination of sanctions is more effective than using any one individual sanction. It is also widely held that sanctions administered on the vehicles of repeat DUI offenders substantially reduce recidivism while they are in place.

Ethical Considerations

Several ethical issues must be considered when examining the DUI penalties. In determining the ethicality of the sanctions, one must weigh whether the punishment fits the crime. Do the punishments act as specific and general deterrents? When considering the shaming sanctions, is publicly shaming an offender an ethical punishment? Moreover, should people be punished for what can be considered a medical problem? If a person is an alcoholic, is punishment the ethical reaction, or should these people receive treatment instead? Another ethical dilemma to consider is the role of physicians and health care providers in the detection of DUIs. Currently six states require physicians to report patients who drive while impaired and another 25 states permit physicians to violate doctor-patient confidentiality to report impaired drivers, if they so choose. The American Medical Association endorsed physician reporting in 1999, but deferred to the states on whether such notification should be mandatory or permissive. Critics of physician reporting feel that allowing physicians to report impaired drivers may deter individuals from seeking medical treatment. Opponents of the practice also contend that the number of lives saved would be equal to the number of lives lost by those failing to seek treatment, thus nothing is truly gained by physician reporting.


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  3. Jacobs, James B. Drunk Driving: An American Dilemma. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,


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  3. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). “MADD—Victim Impact Panels.” 2012. http:// www.madd.org/local-offices/co/victim-impact-panels/victim-impact-panels.html (Accessed May 2013).
  4. Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “Mothers Against Drunk Driving.” 2012. http://www.madd.org (Accessed May 2013).
  5. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “A Guide to Sentencing DWI Offenders.” 2nd ed (2005). http://www.nhtsa.gov/ people/injury/alcohol/DWIOffenders/index.htm (Accessed May 2013).
  6. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Impaired Driving.” (Accessed May 2013).

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