California Drinking and Driving – Laws and Penalties

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Driving under the Influence (DUI) is a serious offense in California, and you should hire an attorney who can properly defend you from the charges. The penalties you are facing will depend on many factors, such as how many prior convictions you have and whether anyone was injured while you were driving.

What is Drunk Driving?

California drunk driving laws can be found in the California Vehicle Code, sections 23152-23229.1. You are “under the influence” of drugs or alcohol if:

  • you are substantially affected by drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two
  • your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is .08% or higher (or .01% if you are under age 21)

As you can see, it is possible to be charged and convicted of DUI even if your BAC is below the .08% threshold.

California drunk driving laws require that you be actually driving the vehicle. Simply being in control or possession of a vehicle is not enough.

What is Administrative Suspension?

California takes DUI so seriously that the state will actually suspend your license automatically simply for being arrested. This is called an “admin per se suspension.” This means you can lose your license automatically without even being convicted of DUI. The officer will confiscate your license and give you a temporary permit that is good for only 30 days.

You have 10 days to request a hearing before the Department of Motor Vehicles. At the hearing, you can argue that there is no basis for the suspension and, if successful, you get your license back. However, winning at the administrative stage does not mean you won’t be convicted later of DUI and have your license suspended then.

If you lose at the hearing, you will have a 4-month suspension. If you have a prior offense in the past 10 years, you will have a 1-year suspension. However, it is possible to receive a restricted license if certain conditions are met.

What if I Refuse a Roadside Test?

California has an implied consent law, which basically means that you agreed to consent to a chemical test as a condition of getting your license. Driving is a privilege, not a right, so the State of California can condition your license on your agreement to take a chemical test. If you refuse, California can take back your license.

If you are pulled over and you refuse to submit to a chemical test, your license will be suspended for 1-3 years, depending on whether this is your first or a subsequent offense. This suspension goes into effect regardless of whether you are guilty of DUI.

What are the Penalties for a First-Time DUI Conviction?

California drunk driving laws set forth different penalties depending on whether this is your first or a subsequent offense.

A first offense DUI will lead to:

  • License suspension for up to 6 months
  • Up to 6 months in county jail
  • 3-5 years of DUI probation
  • Fines and fees
  • Possible installation of an ignition interlock device (IID) on your vehicle
  • DUI school for 3 or 9 months

There are a couple things to note. DUI school is an educational program that tries to discourage you from drinking and driving again. You must pay for the course, which can be very expensive, and you must complete all the requirements.

DUI probation allows you to stay out of jail so long as you agree to the terms of probation. One common term is not driving with any measurable BAC. If you violate any condition of probation, then a judge can revoke your probation and send you to jail.

What Are the Penalties for a Second or Subsequent Conviction?

A second DUI offense within 10 years will carry more serious penalties:

  • License suspension for up to 2 years
  • Up to a year in county jail
  • 3-5 years DUI probation
  • Fines and fees
  • 18-30 months of DUI school
  • Installation of an IID on your vehicle

A third DUI offense within a 10-year period carries the following:

  • Your license suspended for up to 3 years
  • A year in jail
  • Fines and fees
  • 30 months of DUI school
  • 3-5 years DUI probation
  • Installation of IID on your vehicle

A fourth DUI offense in a 10-year period is very serious and can be charged as a felony. You are facing the following:

  • Your license can be suspended for 4 years or possibly permanently
  • 16 months to 3 years in California state prison
  • 30 months of DUI school
  • 3-5 years DUI probation
  • Fines and fees
  • Installation of IID on your vehicle for 3 years
  • Loss of civil rights as a convicted felon while you are in prison or on parole

What if Someone Was Injured in My DUI Collision?

You could face much more serious penalties under California drunk driving laws. A DUI with injury can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. You could face:

  • License suspension up to 4 years or possibly permanently
  • Up to 3 years in state prison (plus an additional 3 years if someone was seriously hurt)
  • Fines and fees totaling up to $18,000
  • 3-5 years of probation
  • 30 months of DUI school
  • Installation of an IID for 3 years
  • Loss of civil rights as a felon while you are in prison or on parole

If someone dies in the accident, you can be charged with second-degree murder.

Contact a lawyer experienced with DUI punishment in California. The Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, offers a free case evaluation to those who contact us. Please avoid delay.

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Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.