DWI Legal Information
 

OVERVIEW

DWI lawyers defend people charged with driving while intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, and related crimes, such as:

  • DUI (driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol)
  • Reckless driving
  • Impaired driving
  • Vehicular manslaughter
  • Public drunkenness
  • Driver’s license suspensions

DWI lawyers can help their clients by advising them on how and whether to answer questions; finding mistakes and problems in the cases against their clients; representing them in court and in administrative hearings; negotiating with law enforcement for lower charges; and of course, defending clients against the charges against them.

DWI lawyers are criminal defense lawyers, because a DWI is a criminal charge. However, some DWI lawyers handle DWIs and related crimes exclusively. Others handle a variety of criminal charges, some of which are much more serious than a DWI.


 

“IF MY BAC WAS 0.08% OR MORE, DOESN’T THAT MEAN I’M GUILTY?”

If your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was over the legal limit for your age and license type, you are presumed to be guilty under the law. However, you still have the legal right to prove your innocence -- and in many cases, you should take it. You were not necessarily guilty of driving with a BAC of 0.08% if your test showed a BAC of 0.08% or higher. Many other circumstances matter, including:

  • When the test was taken.
  • Whether there was alcohol in your mouth.
  • The accuracy of the test.
  • Prescription medication and other substances in your blood that could skew results.

By the way, it doesn’t matter whether you were actually impaired while you were driving. The law does not take your size, gender or physical fitness level into account in determining who should be charged with a DWI. If law enforcement officers believe they can prove that you were driving with a BAC at or above the legal limit, you will be charged.

 

“CAN I BE CRIMINALLY CHARGED FOR A BAC OVER ZERO BUT BELOW 0.08%?”

Yes. In every state, there is a much lower limit for people under the age of 21. In fact, some states have zero-tolerance laws for minors. And it’s not just minors who may be subject to lower limits. People with commercial driver’s licenses are also often held to a higher standard than ordinary drivers.

You can be charged with a lesser offense in many states if your BAC was above zero but below the legal limit. These are not DWI charges; they’re most often called something like “reckless driving” or “driving while impaired.” The penalties are often lower than those of a DWI, but they’re not penalty-free. You can and usually should fight these charges; frequently, they’re easier to win than DWI charges.

 

“HOW DOES A DWI AFFECT MY DRIVER’S LICENSE?”

In some states, you may refuse to take a BAC test. However, refusing to provide the evidence won’t prevent your state from charging you with a DWI. They will probably also punish you for refusing by automatically suspending your license and adding additional time in jail if convicted. For that reason, it may not be in your best interests to refuse a test. In fact, because breath tests can be very inaccurate and don’t always hold up to challenges, some DWI lawyers recommend that you take them.

In many states, you may refuse to take a field sobriety test -- the tests that law enforcement puts you through after pulling you over, such as walking a line -- with no punishments. Similarly, drivers in many states may politely decline to answer police questions without an attorney present. However, it’s important to decline these requests politely, in order to avoid trouble with the officer you’re talking to.

 

“CAN I BE CHARGED WITH A DWI FOR DRIVING AFTER TAKING MEDICATIONS OR STREET DRUGS?”

You absolutely can be charged for driving under the influence of a street drug, over-the-counter medicine or prescription drug. Some states group these charges together with alcohol-related driving; others define separate crimes for alcohol and for drugs. In either case, the test is whether you drove while you were impaired. For example, the labels on many over-the-counter cold medicines warn users that they may cause sleepiness. If that’s the case, it’s best to wait until you’re home to take the medicine.

Because breath tests don’t turn up most drugs, you will likely be asked to take a blood or urine test. This can actually be good news, because these tests are not always acurate. For example, substances related to marijuana stay in the blood for up to 30 days after use. These substances aren’t the same as the ones generated by recent use of marijuana. A skilled DWI lawyer may be able to point to this as evidence that you were not impaired while you were driving.

 

“WHAT ARE THE CRIMINAL PENALTIES FOR A DWI?”

The criminal penalties for a DWI conviction vary according to your state, whether it’s a first conviction and what other circumstances there may have been. Prosecutors generally add penalties if there was an accident, if you were speeding or for other potential or actual harm. However, for a driver charged with a first misdemeanor DWI, who did not cause an accident or harm anyone, penalties will likely be:

  • Probation and/or jail time (usually less than a year in jail).
  • Fines, penalties and restitution of between $1,000 and $4,000.
  • Driver’s license suspended or revoked for 30 days to one year.
  • Alcohol or drug education classes.
  • Car, truck, SUV or motorcycle impounded.

First offenders may also be required to use “breathalyzer” ignition devices or do community service. More serious charges draw larger fines, more time in jail or prison time, longer alcohol classes and other penalties.

 

“ARE THERE ANY NON-CRIMINAL PENALTIES FOR A DWI CONVICTION?”

The non-criminal results of a DWI conviction are frequently more expensive than the criminal penalties. The clearest example of this is auto insurance costs. Those convicted of a DWI can expect their auto insurance rates to more than double for the next three to five years. In fact, many insurance companies may drop you as soon as they learn of a DWI arrest. (This is not always allowed by law; speak to a DWI lawyer for help.) Other expensive and harsh results of a DWI include:

  • Bail costs
  • Vehicle impound and towing fees
  • Cost of alcohol education classes
  • License reinstatement fees
  • Lost wages from missed time at work
  • Court fees
  • Trouble at work -- or a lost job or a lost professional license.
  • A criminal conviction on your record
  • Embarrassment, shame and trouble at home.

These costs are frequently cited by DWI lawyers as reasons to fight your DWI, if appropriate.

 

PAYMENT

In general, criminal defense lawyers ask their clients for a retainer -- money paid at the beginning of a case that funds their work going forward. It pays the DWI lawyer’s hourly rate and expenses like expert witnesses and court fees. If the retainer runs out before the case is finished, they may ask the client for another. It’s difficult to estimate how much this will cost, because much of it depends on the circumstances of the case, where you live and the individual lawyer. However, experts estimate that a DWI case that goes to trial could cost anywhere from $2,000 to $25,000. This does not include the costs of fines, impound fees and other DWI-related costs that are not legal fees.

For a first-time DWI, some DWI lawyers will charge a flat fee of $500 to $1,200. This is most likely when you have few or no disputed facts and intend to plead guilty.