California’s DUI laws can be complex and confusing. In this section, our attorneys break down the rules and explain the process.
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In California, DUI and “drunk in public” are misdemeanor crimes designed to protect the suspect and the public from the suspect’s dangerous, substance-induced behavior. Both laws criminalize a suspect’s being intoxicated in specific settings. However, the level of intoxication that must exist for each crime to occur differs significantly.
California has two primary DUI laws for adult drivers. These are Vehicle Code 23152(a) VC, which makes it illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol, and Vehicle Code 23152(b) VC, which makes it unlawful to drive with a BAC of .08% or greater.
In short, DUI requires that the suspect’s mental and physical faculties be impaired—at least to the extent that he/she can no longer operate a motor vehicle with the same skill and caution as a sober person.
Note that a person doesn’t need to be drunk to fall within the purview of California’s DUI laws. A low to moderate degree of intoxication can trigger an arrest and possible conviction. “Drunk driving” is, therefore, a misnomer. “Impaired driving” would better describe the standard.
Penal Code 647f is the California statute that defines the crime of drunk in public. People commit this offense if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol while in a public place, and they cannot care for their safety or that of others. The offense is sometimes referred to as “public intoxication.”
Unlike with DUI, an offender is guilty of being drunk in public when the party is highly intoxicated, so much so that he/she can no longer safely care for himself or others (even if just walking around). One could be well within the range of intoxication for DUI purposes but well below the range for drunk in public purposes.
This difference in standard makes sense. A person could create a hazard just by walking around in public sufficiently inebriated. But that hazard exists much sooner when the person combines alcohol and driving. (Also refer to our article about being drunk in public on private property under California law.)
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.