When you’re arrested for a DUI, law enforcement will record and report its measurement of your blood alcohol concentration (BAC)—unless you refuse to complete a chemical test. BAC is often critical in the prosecutor's decision whether to prosecute someone.
We recently surveyed readers in different parts of the country who had been arrested for first-offense DUI to learn how their BAC level affected the outcome of their arrest and the ultimate costs they had to pay. Though it’s possible to “drive under the influence” with a BAC under the legal limit (more on that below), our survey results proved a strong correlation between BAC on the one hand and conviction rates, penalty severity, and costs on the other. (Read about our survey findings for first-offense DUI in general.)
DUI With a BAC Under .08%: Cost and Outcomes
Here's what we found out from defendants arrested for first-time DUI with a low blood alcohol level.
Outcomes for Defendants With Low BACs
Of the readers who filled out our survey and had an alleged BAC under .08%, 70% “got off”—meaning they were acquitted, the charges were dropped, or the prosecution didn’t file charges. Although a high BAC isn't required for DUI (as discussed below), this isn't surprising, given their low alleged BAC.
In this low BAC group, 10% pleaded guilty to a lesser, non-DUI offense (such as reckless driving); another 10% pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI, while the remaining 10% were convicted of misdemeanor DUI following a trial. Together, this means only 20% of those with a BAC under .08% were convicted of a DUI.
Of those in the under-.08% range who pleaded guilty or were convicted after trial, none were sentenced to jail, house arrest, or even community service. Their cases resolved with either probation or diversion (a form of sentencing that allows the defendant to avoid a conviction on the record).
Why Would Drivers With Low BAC Plead Guilty to or be Convicted of DUI?
Most states have at least two DUI-related crimes: driving under the influence and driving with a prohibited BAC. "Driving under the influence" generally means to operate a vehicle while impaired, even if the BAC is under the legal limit. Not only can people be convicted of DUI regardless of BAC, but some states have a lesser offense called driving while ability impaired (DWAI) for drivers with BACs between .05% and .08%.
The offense based on blood alcohol level, on the other hand, is a simple numbers game: If the motorist’s blood alcohol level was at or over a certain figure, the crime is complete, regardless of the alcohol’s effect on the driver’s ability. Some states classify the BAC offense as “DWI” rather than “DUI”; many lawyers refer to it as DUI per se. (Note that our survey included all ages; for those under 21, a .01 can mean a DUI.)
Average Costs for DUIs With Low BACs
DUI defendants in our survey who had a BAC less than .08% reported spending an average of $4,600 to resolve their DUI. This average includes the cost of bail, towing and storage, DMV fees, attorneys’ fees and expenses, and, for those convicted of an offense, court-ordered fines and increased car insurance rates. Those who hired lawyers or used public defenders spent an average of $1,600 on attorney fees.
Average Time to Resolve DUIs With Low BACs
The average amount of time it took our readers to resolve a DUI with an alleged BAC under .08% was just one month. The average duration is so short for this group because the majority of the charges were dropped at the outset. The few who pleaded guilty or were convicted after a trial had cases that took longer to resolve. (Note that when referring to someone pleading guilty in this article, we’ve included “no contest” pleas.)
DUI With a BAC From .08% to .14%: Cost and Outcomes
Here's what we found out from defendants arrested for first-time DUI with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit but below the threshold for "sentencing enhancements" (discussed below).
Outcomes for Defendants With Middle-Range BACs
Not surprisingly, readers who had a reported BAC of anywhere from .08% to .14% fared significantly worse. Among these people, only 16% were acquitted or saw their charges dismissed, and 23% pleaded guilty to a lesser offense like reckless driving or wet reckless.
The remaining 61% ended up with a DUI conviction. Of those folks:
- 42% pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI
- 16% went to trial and were convicted of misdemeanor DUI, and
- 3% pleaded guilty to felony DUI.
As to sentencing, 48% in readers at this BAC level were placed on probation. Only 3% went to jail. Almost 20% of folks in this group were required to install an ignition interlock device. Note that in about two dozen states, including New York, Illinois, Virginia, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, and California, ignition interlock devices are now mandatory for first-time offenders with BACs over .08%.
Average Costs for DUIs With Middle-Range BACs
DUI defendants in the .08% to .14% BAC group reported spending an average of $6,300 to resolve their DUI. Ignition interlock devices drove the average costs up for this group by about $1,000. In addition, several types of costs were significantly higher for this group: court-ordered fines (average $1,100), the cost of traffic school or alcohol education (average $300), and increased insurance costs (average $2,400 over three years). Those who hired lawyers or used public defenders spent an average of $1,700 on attorney fees.
Average Time to Resolve DUIs With Middle-Range BACs
The average amount of time it took our readers to resolve a DUI with an alleged BAC between .08% and .14% was five months.
DUI With a BAC at or Over .15%: Cost and Outcomes
Here's what we found out from defendants arrested for first-time DUI with a high blood alcohol level.
Outcomes for Defendants With High BACs
You may have noticed a trend by now, making it easy to believe that 0% of our readers who had a BAC of .15% or higher were acquitted or had their charges dropped. Only 15% were able to plead guilty to a lesser offense, probably due to prosecutors taking a tougher stand at this BAC level. The vast majority of readers in this range, 85%, ended up with a DUI conviction. Here’s the breakdown:
- 77% pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI
- 4% were convicted of misdemeanor DUI after going to trial, and
- 4% pleaded guilty to felony DUI.
Not only is the DUI conviction rate higher when the BAC is higher, but the penalty is, too. The majority (63%) of defendants at or over .15% were placed on probation and 14% were sentenced to jail or prison.
In most states, sentencing enhancements kick in when the BAC hits a certain level. For instance, in Arizona, driving with a BAC over .15% is called an extreme DUI and requires a minimum 30-day jail sentence. In other states, a BAC of .15% (or sometimes .16% or .17%) triggers an "aggravated DUI" or a "DUI with aggravating factors." And in about a dozen states, including Texas and Florida, having a BAC of .15% or more makes an ignition interlock device mandatory. Sentencing enhancements such as these likely contributed to the stiffer penalties for readers with reported BACs in this zone.
In many states, a BAC of .2% or above means even stricter penalties, often increasing the length of the alcohol education program from three months to nine months and disallowing restricted licenses to drive to work or school. In some states, such as Virginia, a .2% BAC will add an additional mandatory minimum period of 10 days to the jail sentence. Experienced DUI attorneys, however, are often able to negotiate away the additional punishments by working out a plea deal for a simple misdemeanor DUI without sentencing enhancements.
Average Costs for Defendants With High BACs
DUI defendants in this group reported spending an average of $7,500 to resolve their DUI, a significant increase over the costs paid by others arrested for first-offense DUI. Several types of costs were notably higher for this group: attorney's fees (average $2,100), court-ordered fines (average $1,500), and the cost of traffic school or alcohol education (average $600).
Average Time to Resolve DUIs With Middle-Range BACs
The average amount of time it took our readers to resolve a DUI with an alleged BAC over .15% was seven months.
Some of our readers didn’t list their BAC—sometimes because they had refused a chemical test, other times because they didn’t know it. But as mentioned above, even if your BAC is below the legal limit or the authorities don’t accurately record it, DUI conviction is possible.
In our survey, conviction rates for people with lower BACs and people who didn’t report their alleged BACS were similar: Of readers who didn't have their BAC recorded or who didn’t know it, 32% had their charges dropped or were acquitted. Another 21% pleaded guilty to a lesser offense, while 47% were convicted of DUI.
However, the consequences of refusing a BAC test are often more severe than those imposed for drivers who test above the legal limit.