Driving under the influence (DUI) is a serious offense in Pennsylvania. A conviction can result in fines, jail time, driver’s license suspension, and other penalties. State law divides the offense of DUI into tiers based in part on the driver’s level of impairment, which could be determined through blood alcohol content (BAC) or by other means. A driver with DUI convictions from the past ten years will face higher penalties. If you face alleged DUI charges in Pennsylvania, an experienced DUI attorney can help you understand the process and advise you about your options.
What Are the Levels of DUI in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania DUI law identifies several tiers of the offense based on the driver’s level of impairment.
Driving Under the Influence
State law does not require evidence of any particular blood alcohol content level for a DUI conviction. Prosecutors need to prove that a defendant was too impaired by alcohol or drugs to operate a vehicle safely. They often do this by having the arresting officer or other witnesses testify about the defendant’s behavior or appearance. This type of DUI is sometimes known as “general impairment” or “undetermined BAC.”
Per Se DUI
If a driver’s BAC is at or above 0.08 percent, state law presumes that they are too impaired to drive safely. This is known as per se DUI. Prosecutors might still have witnesses testify about how a defendant was behaving, but the main evidence of guilt comes from chemical testing of a defendant’s breath or blood.
Pennsylvania law divides DUI per se into three tiers, based on BAC level:
- General Impairment: 0.08 to 0.099 percent blood alcohol content
- High BAC: 0.10 to 0.159 percent
- Highest BAC: 0.16 percent and higher
Note that the state can charge someone with DUI even if a breath test shows BAC of less than 0.08 percent, if police concluded that the person was too impaired to drive.
Driving Under the Influence of a Controlled Substance
A person commits DUI if they drive under the influence of a controlled substance. This can include both illegal drugs and drugs that a person is allowed to use with a prescription if they interfere with someone’s ability to drive.
Refusal to Submit to Breath or Chemical Testing
Anyone who drives on public roads in Pennsylvania, according to state law, has given consent to have their breath tested if the police suspect them of driving under the influence. As a result, refusal to submit to chemical testing is considered a separate offense that is related to DUI. Prosecutors could charge someone with both DUI and refusal in some situations.
What Types of Penalties Can Result from DUI in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania imposes numerous penalties for DUI convictions. The penalties for a particular case will depend on multiple factors and circumstances.
The most minor DUI offenses, such as cases with low BAC and no prior offenses in the past ten years, typically do not result in jail time. More serious offenses, however, may include a mandatory jail or prison sentence. The length of a jail or prison sentence can range from five days to five years.
All DUI convictions require payment of a fine. Under current state law, that fine could be as much as $10,000 or as little, comparatively speaking, as $500.
Driver’s License Suspension
A DUI conviction will also result in the suspension of one’s driver’s license for twelve to eighteen months. Some defendants may be able to reduce the term of license suspension through Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD), discussed further below.
Alcohol Highway Safety School
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) requires some DUI offenders to attend a safety school program that addresses the dangers of alcohol and driving. The goal of highway safety programs is to educate DUI offenders about the dangers of drug and alcohol use and to help them avoid these problems in the future. A program typically consists of three tracks, each lasting at least twelve hours: instruction, outpatient counseling, and group treatment.
Alcohol or Drug Treatment
A court may order a DUI defendant to attend a treatment program for drug or alcohol addiction and abuse. This could be an inpatient or outpatient program. Courts have discretion about whether to order a defendant to undergo treatment and for how long.
Ignition Interlock Device
State law requires some DUI offenders to install a device known as an “ignition interlock” in any vehicle they own at their own expense. This usually involves both an installation fee and a monthly maintenance fee.
In order to start the vehicle’s engine, the person blows into the device. It tests the breath sample for BAC, much like a breathalyzer. If the person’s BAC is at or above a certain amount, which could be set lower than the “legal limit” of 0.08 percent, the ignition interlock device prevents the vehicle’s engine from starting.
The ignition interlock device must remain in the person’s vehicle for one year. In some cases, a DUI offender can have their driving privileges partly restored by installing an ignition interlock device during the period of license suspension.
The court can order a DUI offender to perform up to 150 hours of community service as part of their sentence. District attorney’s offices around the state partner with public and private organizations to identify projects in need of community service work. This could involve roadside cleanup, which is perhaps the most common image people have of community service. It might also involve other projects around the county.
DUI Victim Impact Panel
A court may order a DUI offender to attend a “victim impact panel.” This is a program put on by Mothers Against Drunk Driving or a similar organization. It usually involves a presentation by someone who has been severely impacted by DUI. This could be a person who suffered serious injuries in a drunk driving accident or a person who lost a loved one to a drunk driver. The purpose is to put a human face on the impact of DUI. This is something that does not always happen with other programs.
What Are the Penalties for DUI in Pennsylvania?
The penalties for a DUI conviction depend on two main factors:
- The number of prior DUI convictions in the previous decade, including convictions in other states besides Pennsylvania; and
- The level of the offense, meaning general impairment, high BAC, and so forth.
Other factors, discussed further below, could also affect the penalty for a DUI conviction.
General Penalties for DUI
As a general rule, the penalties for DUI in Pennsylvania are:
|Number of prior offenses in the previous decade||General impairment DUI (0.08 to 0.99% BAC), or undetermined BAC||High BAC (0.10 to 0.159%)||Highest BAC, or controlled substance|
|No prior DUI convictions||Ungraded misdemeanor||Ungraded misdemeanor||Ungraded misdemeanor |
|One prior DUI conviction||Ungraded misdemeanor||Ungraded misdemeanor||First-degree misdemeanor |
|Two prior DUI convictions||Second-degree misdemeanor||First-degree misdemeanor||First-degree misdemeanor |
|Three or more prior DUI convictions||Same as for previous level||First-degree misdemeanor||Same as for previous level|
This chart does not include some of the penalties discussed earlier, such as community service and victim impact panels. Those could be included in any DUI sentence at any level.
Alcohol and Drug Evaluation
DUI offenders must complete an alcohol and drug evaluation before sentencing. The evaluator will determine whether a person needs treatment, counseling, or other services. The court will usually incorporate the evaluator’s recommendations into the defendant’s sentence.
Additional Penalties If a Child Was in the Car
State law imposes additional penalties if a driver had a minor passenger at the time of the DUI offense. These penalties apply regardless of the level of impairment or the number of prior DUI convictions. The court will only look at whether the defendant has prior convictions involving a minor passenger.
- First offense with a minor in the car: $1,000 fine and 100 hours of community service.
- Second offense with a minor in the car: $2,500 fine and one to six months in jail.
- Third or subsequent offense with a minor in the car: Six months to two years in jail.
Additional Penalties for Refusal to Submit to Breath Testing
As mentioned above, refusal to submit to breath testing is a separate offense under Pennsylvania law. It often accompanies DUI charges, so the potential penalties are relevant here. With some exceptions, the penalties for refusal are:
- First offense: Twelve-month license suspension and a $500 fee to reinstate the license.
- Second offense: Eighteen-month suspension and a $1,000 reinstatement fee.
- Third and subsequent offenses: Eighteen-month suspension and a $2,000 reinstatement fee.
A refusal conviction also includes the mandatory use of an ignition interlock device for one year.
Additional Penalties for Ignition Interlock Device Violations
During a period that a DUI offender has been ordered to use an ignition interlock device, that person cannot drive a vehicle that is not equipped with a device. They also cannot remove or tamper with an installed device, or otherwise interfere with its use. For example, it would be a violation for someone to have another person blow into the device to start the vehicle’s engine.
This is considered a separate offense under Pennsylvania law, but it can be used to add on to penalties resulting from a DUI conviction.
- First offense: An additional twelve months of ignition interlock use, starting on the date the person was convicted of an ignition interlock offense.
- Second and subsequent offenses: Twelve-month license suspension starting on the conviction date, followed by twelve months of ignition interlock use.
Are There Any Exemptions From DUI Penalties?
Courts have some discretion regarding certain penalties for a DUI conviction. It may be possible to advocate for lesser penalties during the sentencing phase of a DUI case. Some exemptions are also available for ignition interlock and license suspensions.
Ignition Interlock Exemptions
Exemptions from mandatory ignition interlock use include:
- Financial Hardship: Typically, a DUI offender must install an ignition interlock device in every vehicle they own. This can get very expensive since the monthly fee for a single device could be around $100. A person can apply for an exemption that allows them to install an ignition interlock device in only one vehicle.
- Employment: A DUI offender who drives a vehicle owned by their employer may be able to get an exemption that allows them to drive that vehicle without an ignition interlock device. The person must notify their employer about the ignition interlock requirement, and they must carry an authorization form issued by PennDOT. They can only operate their employer’s vehicle in the course of their employment. This exemption does not apply to large passenger vehicles, including school buses.
Occupational Limited Licenses
An occupational limited license (OLL) allows a DUI offender to drive for the purposes of employment during a license suspension period. It may be available to:
- A first-time DUI offender who has served sixty days of a license suspension; or
- A first- or second-time offender with an eighteen-month suspension, after serving twelve months of the suspension, with use of an ignition interlock device.
What Is Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition?
The ARD program directs courts to impose shorter license suspension periods for people who meet certain criteria, including no prior DUI convictions, no minor passenger, and no serious bodily injury to others if there was an accident. The person must complete community service and attend a victim impact panel as part of the program.
Learn More About Your Rights
If you need assistance with a DUI case, you should contact a Pennsylvania DUI attorney as soon as possible.