What is Driving Under the Influence?

Driving Under the Influence (DUI) is one of the most commonly charged crimes. While it is only a misdemeanor, the penalties can be severe due to loss of driving privileges and mandatory minimum sentences.

The law governing Driving Under the Influence is 75 PA C.S. § 3802. In order for a defendant to be convicted, the government must prove: (1) the defendant was operating a vehicle while (2) impaired due to alcohol or a controlled substance.

  1. The defendant must have been operating a vehicle. The term “vehicle” includes anything with wheels that uses the road. A person can even be convicted of DUI for being intoxicated while riding a bicycle. Operability is usually proven by the defendant actually driving the vehicle. However, driving is not required as operation is defined as actual physical control of the machinery of the vehicle, or management of the vehicle’s movement. The courts look at certain factors in determining operability: whether the motor running, the location of the vehicle, and additional evidence showing that the defendant had driven the vehicle. For example, a person may be charged with DUI while sitting in a car with the ignition turned on.
  2. The defendant must have been impaired due to alcohol or a controlled substance. Typically, the government will prove impairment with breathalyzer or blood test results. A defendant can also be convicted due to circumstantial evidence, such as: unsafe driving, traffic violations, failing field sobriety tests, and statements made by the defendant.

Driving Under the Influence Penalties

The penalties for Driving Under the Influence vary depending on the defendant’s criminal record; whether the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance; and, if the DUI was based on alcohol, how high the defendant’s Blood Alcohol Content (“BAC”) was.

Furthermore, multiple DUI convictions have mandatory minimum sentences, which means that a judge must sentence the defendant to whatever that mandatory minimum sentence is and has no discretion to go lower. Note that all DUI convictions require Alcohol Highway Safety School and have mandatory fines. DUIs are typically ungraded misdemeanors, although some exceptions apply. The following are the different “tiers” of DUIs and the associated penalties for first offense DUIs. These penalties increase for every subsequent DUI within 10 years.

Tier 1

A DUI will be considered Tier 1 where the conviction is based on driving while under the influence of alcohol where: (1) the BAC was less than .099% or (2) there was no BAC taken. The maximum sentence is 6 months incarceration, and the mandatory minimum sentence is 6 month’s probation. There is no license suspension under this tier.

Tier 2

A DUI will be considered Tier 2 where the conviction is based on driving while under the influence of alcohol where: (1) the BAC is between .10% to .159%, (2) a minor’s BAC is higher than .02%, or (3) the DUI resulted in an accident with bodily injury or damage to property. The maximum sentence is 6 months incarceration, and the mandatory minimum sentence is 2 days incarceration. There is a 12 month’s license suspension under this tier.

Tier 3

A DUI will be considered Tier 3 where the conviction is based on driving while under the influence: (1) of drugs, (2) of alcohol where the BAC is higher than .16%, or (3) where the defendant refused to consent to a chemical test. The maximum sentence is 6 months incarceration, and the mandatory minimum sentence is 3 days incarceration. There is a 12 month’s license suspension under this tier.

Defending DUI Charges - Motions

At a preliminary hearing, the government must prove that it was more likely than not that the defendant committed the crimes charged (more than 50%). The court must view the evidence in a light most favorable to the government, give the government all reasonable inferences, and may not make credibility determinations. Due to this very low standard, most criminal charges are held for court following a preliminary hearing. However, where the government failed to meet their burden, the defendant may request that the court dismiss criminal charges at the preliminary hearing.

If the court refuses to dismiss criminal charges at the preliminary hearing, the defendant may file a Motion to Quash requesting that a higher court dismiss the charges due to insufficient evidence. The higher court will review the evidence that was presented at the preliminary hearing to determine whether it was more likely than not that the defendant committed the crimes charged. The government may also supplement the record by presenting new evidence at the Motion to Quash hearing.

Under Rule 600 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, the government must bring the defendant to trial within 365 days of the date that the criminal complaint was filed. However, the government only has 180 days in Philadelphia Municipal Court. Excluded from this time are delays attributable to the defense, and delays where the government was “duly diligent.” The crucial issue for the court to determine is usually  whether the government was duly diligent. For instance, where the government was not ready for trial because a witness failed to appear, the court has to analyze whether the government was duly diligent in securing the witness’s appearance. If the court determines that the government was not duly diligent then the case will be dismissed.

The Constitution requires that all people, and their property, be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and that warrants be supported by probable cause. With a Motion to Suppress, the defendant requests that the court suppress (or not allow) evidence to be used at trial that the police obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. If, after a hearing, the court determines that the evidence was illegally seized, then the evidence cannot be introduced at trial. For example, often the government’s case is dependent upon using the blood or breathalyzer tests to show that a defendant was under the influence while driving. If these test results are suppressed, then the government may not be able prove the DUI charge. The following are common examples seen in DUI cases.

Illegal Stop

Reasonable suspicion and probable cause are similar, but distinct, legal concepts. Essentially, they both mean that the police need legal justification to stop someone. Typically, a Motion to Suppress due to lack of reasonable suspicion or probable cause will be used to suppress physical evidence (i.e. breathalyzer results or blood test). For example, a police officer testifies that he pulled over the defendant because he was swerving, and the defendant subsequently gave a blood test showing he was under the influence. However, at the Motion to Suppress hearing, it is revealed that the defendant was not actually swerving, but was in fact driving normally. Consequently, the police had no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop the defendant. Therefore, the blood test was obtained as a result of an illegal stop and would be suppressed.

Illegal Statement

The government will sometimes attempt to use a defendant’s statement against them in a DUI case. If a defendant was in custody and the police officer asked questions that were reasonably likely to illicit an incriminating response, then the statement should be suppressed if the police officer did not read the defendant his Miranda warnings.

A Motion in Limine requests that the court either preclude or allow certain evidence at trial. They are different from Motions to Suppress as they deal usually with the Rules of Evidence, and not constitutional violations.

With regards to DUIs, there is a very important Motion in Limine that may win the case before ever going to trial. The Driving Under the Influence statute specifies that the defendant cannot be over the legal limit of alcohol within two hours of operating a vehicle. Therefore, if the government does not administer a chemical test to the defendant within two hours of operating the vehicle, the defense can request that the court rule that the results of the test are inadmissible at trial.

Defending DUI Charges - Trial

The Driving Under the Influence offense requires that the defendant is “operating” a motor vehicle. In certain circumstances, there can be a serious question as to whether there was operation. It would not matter if a defendant is pulled over by the police – obviously the defendant was in operation of the vehicle.

However, where the police see an intoxicated defendant sitting in a car, there is a question as to whether the defendant is actually operating the car. An experienced criminal defense attorney will challenge the government’s evidence: were the keys in the ignition, were the lights on, was the car in park, was the car legally parked? Often, the result can come down to a single, small, issue such as – the car was only on because it was winter and the defendant had the heater on.

Driving Under the Influence offenses require that a defendant be under the influence of either alcohol or drugs while operating the vehicle. Many times there will be no direct evidence at trial of intoxication – such as a blood test or breathalyzer. However, the government can still attempt to prove DUI by circumstantial evidence, such as: blood shot eyes, slurred speech, un-balanced, failure to complete a field sobriety test, and etc. However, these observations can, and should be, challenged by an experienced criminal defense attorney.