Each year in the United States, one million drivers or more are arrested and charged with driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI). Because these criminal charges are so common, misinformation abounds — and relying on this incorrect information could lead you to compromise your legal rights. Below, we’ll discuss seven of the most common misconceptions surrounding DUI charges and what you should know if you or a loved one has recently been charged with DUI.
Failing the Breathalyzer Means a Slam-Dunk Conviction
One of the most persistent misconceptions about a DUI charge involves the use of a breathalyzer. The breathalyzer only measures the alcohol content of your breath — and while this can often approximate the alcohol content of your blood, it’s not always accurate. If you’ve just taken a drink of beer, swigged some mouthwash, or even started chewing a piece of sugar-free gum before the breathalyzer test, your result may suggest that you’re intoxicated even if you’re not. Breathalyzers may also give inaccurate readings if they haven’t recently been calibrated or if the person administering the test is inexperienced and doesn’t instruct the driver correctly.
Because of this risk of error, a blood test is considered the most accurate indicator of whether someone was driving while under the influence. But unless your blood is tested shortly after your arrest, this result may also not be accurate. In most cases, it’s possible to challenge your breathalyzer or blood test result, requiring the arresting officers to present more evidence of guilt.
You Can’t Get a DUI for Boating or Riding a Motorcycle or ATV
In some states (though not Washington), you can be charged with a DUI even for riding your bicycle while under the influence. In Washington, you can only be charged with a DUI for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated — but this includes cars, trucks, motorcycles, ATVs, mopeds, and any other motor vehicle that can be taken on the roadway. You can also face DUI charges if you’re operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance.
You Can Avoid a DUI Arrest With Careful Driving
One thing many drivers tell themselves is that as long as they drive carefully and avoid getting into an accident, their risk of being arrested for DUI is low. However, if you’re involved in an accident and are discovered to have alcohol or drugs in your system, you could face arrest and prosecution — even if you weren’t at fault. This means that being hit by another careless driver could put you in hot water even if you were driving as carefully as you could. And when you’ve had a few drinks, what you consider to be “driving carefully” may not be as careful or steady as you think.
You Have to Take the Breathalyzer
Washington’s “implied consent” law means that the action of driving a vehicle on a public roadway is enough to give implied consent to law enforcement officials if you’re suspected to be driving while under the influence. But this implied consent law isn’t limitless, and police officers can’t pull you over and require you to take a blood or breath test unless they have reasonable suspicion that you’re under the influence — like weaving, speeding, failing to yield, or repeatedly crossing the center line.
It’s important for you to understand your legal rights when it comes to being pulled over and asked to submit to a sobriety test. Depending on the circumstances, submitting to such a test may not be in your best interest — although your refusal to take a test can be used as evidence in itself, having a test on record that indicates that you were intoxicated while behind the wheel can be even more incriminating.
You Don’t Need a Lawyer
Because many DUI charges are fairly routine and run-of-the-mill, it can be tempting for many to try to DIY their own legal defense. After all, if doing this can save a few thousand dollars on an attorney, all the better — right?
Wrong. Not only can an attorney review your case to determine your potential defenses to DUI charges, but attorneys are also familiar with the rules of evidence and other trial rules that will govern the legal proceedings. Even if you have a proverbial smoking gun in your defense, if you can’t get this evidence admitted in court, it might as well not exist. And without an attorney on your side to negotiate the outcome of the case with the prosecutor, you could find yourself stuck with thousands of dollars in ignition interlock fees, driver’s license reinstatement fees, and court costs and fines.
A First-Time DUI is a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card
Because DUIs are so common, some people tend to see them as a rite of passage or something similar to a traffic ticket. But even if a DUI arrest is your first offense, you could still face time in jail — both after your arrest and if you’re convicted. Underestimating the potential penalties for a DUI conviction can lead some people to plead guilty just to get the process over with (or to avoid paying for an attorney). But as these people may quickly learn, having a DUI on your record can make it more expensive to purchase car insurance and could even disqualify you from certain jobs.
Alternatives to Conviction Aren’t Available
In many cases, particularly those involving first-time DUI offenders, the trial court may extend some alternatives to a DUI conviction and jail time. For example, the court may agree to defer the conviction for a probationary period — and at the end of this probationary period, if you haven’t incurred any new criminal charges, the DUI charges could be reduced to a lesser offense. It’s worthwhile to investigate options like these in lieu of taking your case to court, as deferral agreements and similar arrangements can help you avoid a criminal conviction even when the evidence isn’t favorable to you.