Jail time is a standard penalty for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But many jurisdictions suspend the jail sentence for a first-time DUI conviction if the defendant:
- pays a fine,
- takes an alcohol and drug education course,
- avoids new arrests while the case is open, and
- completes any other sentencing terms the judge imposes, such as community service.
But if the defendant fails to complete all these non-jail penalties or otherwise violates probation, the judge can then remand him/her to jail.
How long do they keep you in jail for a DUI?
In general, the maximum imprisonment for a first-time DUI under state and federal law is six months.1 But it is rare for first-time DUI defendants to serve much jail – if any – as long as they complete all the other required sentencing terms. However, some cities and counties require mandatory minimum jail sentences for first-time offenders.
What increases DUI jail sentences?
DUI defendants usually face harsher jail sentences if they have prior DUI convictions. Second DUIs and third DUIs nearly always carry some minimum jail time.
And if the incident resulted in someone sustaining a serious injury or getting killed, the defendant would likely face felony DUI charges – carrying a mandatory prison sentence.
Depending on the jurisdiction, the following aggravating factors may increase a DUI jail sentence:
- driving with a particularly high blood alcohol concentration (BAC), typically 0.15% or greater;
- refusing to take a chemical test (breath test or blood test) following the DUI arrest;
- speeding while DUI;
- having a child in the motor vehicle; and/or
- driving while under a driver’s license suspension or without a required ignition interlock device (IID)
Are there alternatives to jail in DUI cases?
Many jurisdictions allow eligible DUI offenders to take an intensive drug or alcohol treatment program in lieu of prison. Some programs require inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, residing in a sober living facility, or a combination of the three. And upon successful completion of rehab, the charge can be dismissed or reduced to a lesser penalty such as reckless driving.
Eligible DUI defendants may also be able to avoid jail through a work furlough (WF) program. WF allows defendants to work a manual labor job while living in a county-based facility (“halfway house”). Defendants can check out in the morning, take public transportation to work, and then come back to the facility to eat and sleep.
Another potential alternative sentence to jail is home confinement (“house arrest“). In these DUI cases, defendants typically wear a GPS electronic monitoring anklet so that law enforcement can supervise their whereabouts. The defendant may also have to wear a SCRAM device that constantly monitors their alcohol levels.
But if the defendant ever violates the conditions of their alternative sentence – such as by quitting rehab, drinking again, or going to a prohibited location – the defendant’s probation can be revoked. And the defendant may have to serve out the underlying jail sentence.
Do you go to jail for a DUI in California?
A California DUI jail sentence depends on the specific drunk driving offense and whether it is a misdemeanor or felony DUI. Some offenses are wobblers meaning they can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony.
California DUI crime
DUI Jail time
|First offense DUI||Misdemeanor: Up to six months in county jail|
|Second offense DUI||Misdemeanor: 96 hours to one year in county jail|
|Third offense DUI||Misdemeanor: 120 hours to one year in county jail|
|Fourth offense DUI||If charged as a misdemeanor: 180 days to one year in county jail; or |
If charged as a felony: 16 months, two years, or three years in prison
|DUI with injury||If charged as a misdemeanor: Five days to one year in county jail |
If charged as a felony: 16 months to 10 years in California State Prison, plus an additional one-to-six years depending on the number of victims and the extent of their injuries
|Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated||If charged as a misdemeanor: Up to one year in county jail |
If charged as a felony: 16 months, two years, or four years in prison
|Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated||Felony: Four, six, or 10 years in prison |
If defendant has a prior vehicular manslaughter conviction or two prior DUI convictions, the penalty is 15 years to life in prison.
If there are any surviving victims who suffered great bodily injury, the defendant faces an additional and consecutive three-to-six years in prison.
|DUI second degree murder||Felony: 15 years to life in prison|
As long as there are no aggravating factors, most first-time DUI defendants get probation with no jail time. This is the case in Los Angeles County. But some counties do require some incarceration for a first-time DUI.
For instance, the minimum jail sentence for a first-DUI in Riverside County is six to 10 days or work release. And Ventura County DUI convictions carry 48 hours of jail or five days of work release. (Unlike work furlough, work release allows the defendant to live at home and not a supervised facility.)2
Can I go to jail for DUI even if I was sober?
Yes. California DUI law defines drunk driving as either:
- driving while impaired by alcohol (VC 23152(a)); or
- driving with a BAC of 0.08% or higher (VC 23152(b)), whether the driver is impaired or not
Therefore, merely having an illegal blood alcohol content of 0.08% or greater subjects California drivers to DUI penalties. It does not matter if they were operating the automobile in a safe manner.
Is it worth fighting a DUI?
Yes. The stakes in DUI cases are very high. And there are dozens of potential defenses that DUI lawyers use to persuade prosecutors to dismiss the criminal charge or agree to a good plea bargain – such as a reduction to a wet reckless or a dry reckless.
Ten common DUI defenses that criminal defense attorneys rely on include:
- The police lacked reasonable suspicion to pull over the driver in the first place.
- The police lacked probable cause to make the arrest.
- The police did not administer the standardized field sobriety tests correctly.
- The breathalyzer was defective and returned falsely high blood alcohol content (BAC) results. Or the breathalyzer had not been calibrated recently, so its BAC results cannot be trusted.
- The defendant was in a diabetic coma or having another medical episode that the officers misconstrued as intoxication.
- The high BAC results were due to mouth alcohol, such as if the defendant had dental work that allowed alcohol to pool.
- The high BAC results were due to a medical condition, such as GERD or acid reflux.
- The defendant had rising blood alcohol. This means that his/her blood alcohol level was legal while he/she was driving, but it rose to illegal levels later on during the chemical test.
- The blood test results became contaminated.
- The lab technicians who handle the blood tests let their certifications lapse.
If a DUI defense attorney can raise a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, the entire case could be dropped.3
Does a DUI ruin your life?
Getting a drunk driving or drugged driving conviction – especially a subsequent DUI – can have a profound impact on the defendant’s life:
- Serving jail may cause defendants to lose their job since they cannot report to work.
- Even if there is no jail, DUIs look bad on background checks and may cause potential employers or landlords to disqualify the defendant;
- The license suspension alone could cause defendants to lose their jobs if they cannot otherwise get to work. And commercial drivers may lose their entire livelihoods without a CDL.
Plus, DUI fines are very expensive. And completing all the non-jail punishments – such as DUI School – take time away from work and family. All of this is why anyone charged with driving under the influence is advised to fight both the criminal case and the DMV case to avoid a conviction and a license suspension.
- See, for example, 36 CFR § 4.23 & § 1.3
- California Vehicle Codes 23152 & 23153 VC. Penal Code 191.5 PC. Penal Code 187 PC.
- See, for example, People v. Beltran, (Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four, 2007) 157 Cal. App. 4th 235, 68 Cal. Rptr. 3d 489. See, for example, Najera v. Shiomoto, (Court of Appeal of California, Fifth Appellate District, 2015) 241 Cal. App. 4th 173, 193 Cal. Rptr. 3d 596.