Drunk Driving: Is It Illegal in All 50 States?

To put it simply, yes—drunk driving is illegal in all 50 states.

In fact, every state considers any driver with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher to be driving drunk. 

If you’ve been arrested for drunk driving, it could be helpful to familiarize yourself with the details of impaired driving laws in your state. While drunk driving is illegal in every state, that doesn’t mean that all the punishments and other nuances are the same. 

Let’s look further into American drunk driving laws. 

Per Se DUI Laws

In every American state, as well as the District of Columbia, there are per se drunk driving laws.

This means that if a driver is found to have a BAC of at least 0.08, that driver is guilty of driving under the influence based on that evidence alone. 

Legal BAC Level for Intoxication

All the states in America, as well as the District of Columbia, have a law that considers a BAC of 0.08 to be legally intoxicating.

However, there are advocates out there who are trying to lower that limit closer to 0.05, which is more akin to the limit in many European countries

Zero-Tolerance

All fifty states have something called zero-tolerance laws.

In the United States, the legal age to consume alcohol is 21 years old. So, any driver that is under the legal drinking age and is caught with any alcohol in their system can be arrested. 

In some states, an underage driver can even be arrested with a BAC of .00 if an officer suspects that the driver has consumed alcohol. Around 1.5 million people under the age of 21 are arrested every year for drunk driving. 

Enhanced Penalty BAC Level

Although this isn’t present in every state, many of them have laws that increase the penalties for drivers whose BAC levels hit a certain level above the legal limit.

Typically, if a driver has a BAC that’s at least 0.15 or 0.20, then the penalties for DUI are increased. 

Implied Consent Laws

Everyone with a driver’s license should make themselves familiar with implied consent laws.

Basically, no matter what state you live in, you are giving your implied consent to taking field sobriety tests if asked, when you apply for a driver’s license. You also consent to submit to breath tests. 

You can refuse to take those tests when presented with them, but the implied consent laws set penalties in place for people who refuse to take these tests. Those penalties are on top of any penalties you might face for being accused of drunk driving. 

Open Container Laws

Drinking and possessing an open alcoholic beverage container in a public place or in your car is illegal in most states.

In these instances, nobody is allowed to have an open container.

In a few states, it’s only illegal for the driver to have an open container. 

License Suspension or Revocation

There are laws in every state that allow for your driver’s privileges to be removed or suspended if you’re caught driving while intoxicated.

In many states, the suspension of your license is an administrative action that’s executed by the Department of Motor Vehicles or a similar organization. However, this is not considered to be a criminal penalty. 

This means that, in certain situations, your license can be suspended before you’re even found to be guilty in a court of law—for example, if you refuse to take a field sobriety test. 

The difference from state to state has to do with how long a driver’s license is suspended and what the driver has to do to get it back. This is why it’s so important to know the impaired driving laws for your specific state. 

Hardship License

Thankfully, a majority of states allow for certain provisions.

For example, drivers are able to apply for hardship licenses, even when their driving privileges have been temporarily suspended. With a hardship license, a driver is usually allowed to drive (only) to church, work, or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. 

These kinds of laws vary greatly between states. 

Mandatory Jail Time

For the majority of states, you’ll be required to undergo mandatory jail time for certain levels of violation of drunk driving.

For example, it’s required in some states that repeat DUI offenders have to serve at least some jail time.

However, more and more states are continuing to shift toward mandating jail time for first-time offenders, too. In some instances, that might only mean 24 hours spent in jail. 

With that said, mandatory time in jail is usually served to drunk drivers who have multiple convictions or who have injured or killed someone as a result of their drunk driving. 

Mandatory Alcohol Education and Assessment

In every state, if you get convicted with a DUI, you’ll have to meet certain criteria before you’re legally allowed to drive again.

For most states, this means being evaluated for a drinking problem. You’ll also likely have to attend educational classes and attend AA meetings. 

These classes aren’t mandatory but you do have to attend them if you want to be allowed to drive again. 

It’s Important to Know About Drunk Driving Laws

The American government takes drunk driving very seriously.

The best way to avoid ever being convicted of a DUI is to never drink and drive, under any circumstances. If you do happen to be arrested, it’s important that you understand your state’s laws and what your rights are. 

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