The History of DUI Laws in the United States
There are conflicting accounts regarding the origins of Driving While Intoxicated (DUI) laws in the United States. Many claim that New York was the first state to enact laws against drunk driving in 1910, with California and several other states following. However, there is documentation that Massahusettes actually was the first state to address the problems associated with DUI’s in 1907. In 1938, both the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council set up committees to address the growing concerns associated with DUI’s.
The early laws were relatively lenient, rarely resulting in tough penalties or jail time. Early laws had no specific definition of what constituted intoxication. The first legal BAC limit was 0.15%, nearly twice the legal limit allowed today.
In the late 1970’s through the 1990’s, advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) lobbied relentlessly to enhance the laws and penalties for DUI offenses. For example, their efforts were successful in the adaptation of “zero tolerance” laws, criminalizing persons under the age of 21 to operate a vehicle with a 0.01% to 0.02% BAC. The BAC for adults to legally drive steadily became a 0.08% throughout the country in the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s.
New studies have shown (based on MADD studies) that 1/3 of all road deaths are the result of driving while intoxicated. Due to increased lobbying efforts to eliminate drunk driving by groups like MADD, states continue to stiffen their DUI laws. In fact, in 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all U.S. states lower the BAC limit from 0.08% to 0.05%.
MADD was established in 1980 by a mother whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Since then, MADD has grown into the nation’s largest non-profit dedicated to eliminating drunk driving and underage drinking, with over 2 million members and 400 affiliates nationwide. Their influence over the government passage of tough DUI laws is significant.
Recently, MADD has focused on passing strong DUI laws in all 50 states, with a focus on mandatory installation of interlock devices, even for a 1st offense. They claim that DUI deaths have been down 26% since 2006. According to a 2014 report, MADD has been successful in persuading 24 states to pass interlock legislation for all offenders, with 4 states passing the law in 2014 alone. Additionally, states have implemented laws that allow for permanent vehicle confiscation and excessive fines, up to thousands of dollars, not including legal fees. They also maintain that many other states have similar legislation in the works.
The Toughest State Laws
Arizona, Florida, and South Carolina have the toughest DUI laws in the nation. The following are examples of state provisions:
- Arizona: In 2007, Arizona increased its DUI penalties. Even 1st time DUI offenders are required to have an Ignition Interlock Device (IID) for one year. Of the 11 other states that have IID requirements, most do not last the year duration for a 1st DUI. The minimum total fine is $1,250, a range of 24 hours to 10 days in jail and license suspension of 90-360 days.
- Florida: There is an IID requirement for second time offenders, and sometimes even 1st time offenders, if their BAC is high enough. There is an imposition of a fine of $500 - $2,000 and license suspension of a minimum of 6 months.
- South Carolina: If a driver has BAC higher than .08 they must serve a mandatory 48 hours in jail, even if it is their 1st offense. If their BAC is 0.16 or above there is a minimum 30 days jail sentence, with a maximum of 90 days. Fines for a 1st time offender are between $400 and $1,000.
The Most Lenient State DUI Laws
The following are the most lenient DUI laws in the country, in the following order:
- Pennsylvania – One of the few states where recidivist DUI offenders do not become felony offenders and the maximum sentence, no matter how many DUI’s an offender has acquired, does not increase beyond 5 years.
- Montana - Lowered BAC thresholds and a ban on open containers, which was enacted only when faced with the threat of lower federal highway funds. However, the average conviction occurs only when the BAC is a .16, twice the legal limit.
- Rhode Island - Sobriety checkpoints are illegal and there is a lack of enforcement of “no-refusal”, resulting in people just refusing an on-site test and avoid arrest.
Criticism of Tough DUI Laws
Largely due to MADD lobbying, a federal law in 2000 pressured states to lower their BAC standards to 0.08 from 0.10. However, the average BAC in alcohol-related fatal accidents was 0.17 and studies show that people with a BAC at or lower than a 0.10 do not drive recklessly enough even be noticed by the police. Also, they are very rarely the cause of fatal accidents. However, check-points are not designed to address the statistics and actually catch seriously impaired motorists. Rather they are set up to increase the number of arrests due to DUI’s.
These roadblocks have been constitutionally challenged. In the 1990 Supreme Court decision, it was acknowledged that checkpoints constitute seizures under the Fourth Amendment. However, the Court created an exception that the public safety threat posed by drunk driving made traditional illegal searched “reasonable.” State governments supported the ruling because the arrests raised local revenue. However, the checkpoints resulted in many more traffic infractions, such as seatbelt violations, than they did in DUI arrests.
In 2009, studies showed that in California, sobriety checkpoints resulted in $40 million in fines, $30 million in overtime pay for cops, 24,000 vehicle confiscations, and just 3,200 arrests for drunk driving. This demonstrates that, perhaps, states with serious deficits tend to utilize sobriety checkpoints to boost the economy, rather than deter DUI related fatalities. In fact, one argument suggests that, checkpoints are "the drunk driving exception to the Constitution." Additionally, another concern is that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination has been ignored by laws that suspend the licenses of drivers who refuse to take roadside breath tests. Breath test manufactures often refuse to turn over their source code, resulting in a major obstacle to DUI defenses.
If a DUI suspect refuses to take a roadside breath test, they are often taken into custody and forced to take a blood test to determine if alcohol is in their system. However, by the time the blood test is administered, the BAC is significantly different than when they were actually driving. Even though their blood test will show a lower BAC than when they were driving, the suspect is nonetheless penalized by the system for not submitting to the roadside test, with a charge that assumes they had the highest BAC and are hit with the harshest penalties. This often results in increased fines, a longer suspension of their driving privileges, a longer period of probation and many more mandated alcohol classes.
If the point of tough DUI laws is to decrease the number of alcohol related deaths, then new enforcement techniques are largely ineffective. Studies have shown that talking on a cell phone (even with it on speaker,), eating, adjusting the radio, or having a child in the backseat causes more impairment that an illegal BAC.
If the ultimate goal is to reduce driver impairment and maximize highway safety, laws should be punishing reckless driving. It shouldn't matter if it's caused by alcohol, sleep deprivation, prescription medication, text messaging, or road rage. If lawmakers want to stick it to dangerous drivers who threaten everyone else on the road, they can dial up the civil and criminal liability for reckless driving, especially in cases that result in injury or property damage.
DUI laws should focus more on driver impairment, rather than demonizing a person for having a few drinks who is completely capable of driving without recklessness. The violation of civil liberties, which is an insult to constitutional rights, far out weights the fatalities resulting from low-level DUI offenders. Instead, states should focus on reckless driving, rather than succumbing to powerful lobbyists such as MADD.
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Authored by Nicole Shoener, LegalMatch Legal Writer.