Understanding DUI Laws in California

Humble Eagle
Feb 3, 2020 2:25:00 PM

Whether you’ve found yourself on the receiving end of a DUI, know someone who has, or are simply curious about California’s DUI laws, here’s what to expect if you are caught drunk driving.

What happens if I get pulled over?

A police officer can pull you over if they have reasonable suspicion that you are driving under the influence. Maybe they saw you were having a hard time staying in your lane, were driving excessively fast or slow, or were involved in a car accident. Whatever the case, there has to be some indication of an issue for the police officer to rightfully pull you over and further examine the situation. 

Once pulled over, the officer will likely ask for your license and registration — this is common with most traffic stops. During this time, the officer will also be looking for signs of impairment due to drug use or alcohol consumption, often giving you an opportunity to share if you’ve been drinking. Searching your car with probable cause or having you exit your car to “test” your level of coherency with roadside tests are also common practices. 

What happens if I have been drinking?

While it is legal to have some alcohol in your system and drive, “California’s DUI laws prohibit all motorists from driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more.” And while all states have some type of DUI law, California law is one of the strictest, penalizing you with large fines and long jail times for drunk driving. 

To give you an idea of what these fines and sentences look like, for a first DUI offense (without bodily injury) you’ll likely be charged the following:

  • Fine: up to $2,000
  • Jail Time: up to 6 months, likely with additional probation
  • License Suspension: up to 6 months
  • Educational courses: a three-month program at a minimum 

If you receive another DUI within 10 years of the first, things get a bit worse, as “you may be sentenced to as many as 16 months in state prison, roughly $18,000 in fines and assessments, and the requirement of a 30-month alcohol treatment program,” along with a suspension of your driver’s license for a year. 

What will the police officer do if I’ve been drunk driving?

After they take the necessary steps to determine if you were driving under the influence and discover that you indeed were, the police officer will likely take your driver’s license and arrest you. Drunk driving is a serious offense, and they want to ensure the safety of you and others and get you off the road as soon as possible. 

From there, the police officer will take you to a police station, or medical facility if you were in a car accident, where you will then be instructed to participate in chemical testing. The purpose of this test is to measure the amount of alcohol or drugs in your system and is done by analyzing your breath or blood. This is not just a California law but is implemented in all 50 states; they are called “implied consent” laws. And if you refuse to take the test, you will face serious consequences, including additional fines, sentences, and an extra lengthy suspension of your driver’s license. 

What happens after I’ve been arrested?

The police officer has the responsibility of writing a police report, which recounts the situation through his or her eyes. Though it won’t be available right away, this is a record you can view later to better understand the situation and decide how you want to go about navigating your DUI charge. 

The report goes directly to the DMV where it is evaluated, along with your test results. According to the California DMV, “The DMV automatically conducts an administrative review that includes an examination of the officer's report, the suspension or revocation order, and any test results. If the suspension or revocation is upheld during the administrative review, you may request a hearing to contest the suspension or revocation.”

Within 10 days of receiving a suspension or revocation, you can request a hearing to discuss the arrest and DUI charges further; there is a chance the suspension or revocation can be released if the situation shows there was no basis for the initial action. 

Can I still drive after I’ve been arrested for a DUI?

If your driver’s license was confiscated during your arrest, you do have the ability to get it back at the end of your suspension or revocation period if you pay a fine. During your suspension period, you may be given a temporary license, which will allow you to drive for 30 days and still make it to work, school, or other responsibilities you have until your sentence is determined. 

Are the laws still the same if I get arrested for a DUI while under the age of 21?

California DUI law is even more strict for those arrested for drunk driving while under the age of 21 — they have what is called a “zero tolerance” law. Whereas 0.08% is the magic BAC level for those over 21, for those under 21 it is 0.01%, which means if you’ve consumed any amount of alcohol and get pulled over, you’re likely going to test positive for driving under the influence. You will face the same penalties as those who are over 21, and your driving privilege will be suspended for one year, according to the California DMV.

Other California DUI laws to consider:

  • The BAC level for commercial drivers is 0.04%, meaning you can be arrested for a DUI if have a commercial license and are driving with a BAC of 0.04% or higher.
  • California law requires “proof of driving” in order to convict someone of a DUI, meaning if you’re sitting in your car in a parking lot while drunk, but aren’t actually driving, you cannot legally be arrested for a DUI in California. 
  • Interestingly enough, California has similar DUI laws for riding a bike or scooter or operating a boat while under the influence.

Navigating the legal system after you receive a DUI can be difficult. It’s a good idea to talk with a lawyer to establish the best course of action for your case. Safe driving!

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