California DUI Laws & Penalties


Due to high alcohol-fueled road fatalities in California, the Department of Motor Vehicles promptly suspends the driver’s license if you are even remotely suspected of driving under the influence in California. A law called Admin Per Se authorizes the California DMV to confiscate the driving license of the DUI offender. The license is returned only if the charge is dismissed at a hearing. Otherwise, the license remains with the authorities for the period earmarked for suspension of driving privileges.

What is a California DUI offense, and how is it penalized?

In California, driving under the influence (DUI) or driving any vehicle after consuming alcohol or drugs is illegal. Treated as a criminal offense, DUI attracts a spectrum of charges ranging from a minor misdemeanor to a serious felony. A DUI offense is registered if the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of the offender attains or exceeds the following levels:

  • An adult aged 21 years or above driving under an ordinary license – BAC reading 0.08% or above.
  • An adult aged 21 years or above driving under a commercial driving license – BAC reading 0.04% or higher.
  • A licensed but underage individual (below 21 years) driving any vehicle – BAC reading 0.01% or higher.

California DUI Laws are equally harsh on people under treatment and medication. The law specifically bars individuals from driving after consuming illegal drugs, over the counter medications, and prescription medicines if they contain alcohol that elevates BAC readings. A California DUI conviction is to be avoided at all cost as it remains on your driving record for ten years.

Does California charge you with DUI if you are under 21 years?

There are two DUI laws in operation in California.

  • California’s “zero tolerance” law where a DUI offense is registered if BAC is 0.01% or above, and
  • Underage driving with BAC registering 0.05% or above.

If you happen to be underage and driving even marginally intoxicated, California applies both the laws and the penalty imposed is a one-year suspension of the driver’s license. Any reading 0.01% and above on the BAC scale registered by an underage driver is a violation of the law and is punishable.

Underage drivers refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test or refusing chemical testing face a one-year suspension of the driver’s license.

How much can you drink to drive safely under California DUI Laws?

Two drinks offer a relatively safe buzz that probably won’t net you in the DUI radar. If you confine yourself to two servings (3 ounces) of 40 percent proof alcohol (that’s hard liquor) over a two-hour duration, you can consider yourself safe. The same holds for 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine.

More important is the size of the serving. A cocktail may mix more than two servings of different alcohols, and beer could prove to be stronger than 6 percent. If you cross the threshold to your third drink you are definitely in the danger zone of higher BAC readings. You will need a minimum of 2 hours and 45 minutes for the alcohol level to subside to pass the breathalyzer test, but the heady buzz may push you to violate this golden time rule.

Is being in “actual physical control” sufficient for a California DUI charge?

In most states, DUI can be charged even if a driver is not actually driving the vehicle; it is enough that the driver is deemed to be in “actual physical control” of a vehicle while under the influence. Basically, this means that one can drink and simply relax in one’s car and still face a DUI charge. The police officer may reason that the driver, though not actually driving the vehicle, is “intending” to drive the vehicle, and is potentially dangerous to the public.

But under California Drunk Driving Laws, “actual physical control” of a vehicle, on its own, is not sufficient to charge a DUI; the offender must be proved to be actually driving the vehicle.

California Penalties for a DUI Offense

When you come face to face with a DUI charge, the California law will examine an entire spectrum of aggravating and mitigating circumstances to decide penalties. Mitigating factors, like an exemplary past record, lower the seriousness of the offense and call for leniency. Aggravating factors such as DUI being repeated, call for steeper penalties. Under California Drunk Driving Laws, the DUI offense stands on record for a period of 10 years. An offense repeated in that period will count as a second or subsequent offense attracting higher penalties.

California First Offense DUI Penalties

California DUI Laws treat the first DUI charge as a misdemeanor punishable with statutory fines, mandatory community service, suspension of driver’s license, and possible probation. Serious violations can escalate sentencing and penalties.
  • Basic fines and court fees could total $1,830; the bill may escalate if the court orders victim compensation.
  • 48 consecutive hours in jail; work service conversion may be an option in which the DUI offender pleads guilty and agrees to place himself under supervision for a period up to 6 months.
  • Three to five years’ probation, compulsorily reporting to a probation officer who has the right to search and seize alcohol. (Probation is an inescapable punishment wedded to most civil and criminal offenses in California)
  • Mandatory DUI education class (minimum cost $500) running for 3 to 9 months.
  • The court may insist on an Ignition Interlock Device (IID) in any DUI related offense provided BAC exceeds 0.15%, or in the event, the offender refuses to undergo a chemical test or breathalyzer test.
  • Six months loss of driving privileges through suspension of driver’s license, or a license restricting vehicular use to driving to office or school and back.

California Second Offense DUI Penalties

In California Drunk Driving Laws, a second offense is charged if it occurs within 10 years of the previous DUI conviction. This includes the following penalties:

  • Basic fines and court fees could total $2,800; the bill may escalate if the court orders victim compensation.
  • Minimum 96 consecutive hours in jail; jail time could stretch from 10 to 30 days running alongside one-year license suspension or 18-months license restriction, with steeper fines.
  • Court orders 3 to 5 years’ probation; offender compulsorily reporting to a probation officer who has the right to search and seize alcohol.
  • 18 months of compulsory DUI education class in the county’s listed schools.
  • 3 years driver’s license cancellation; could be converted to a restricted license after one year subject to the condition that an ignition interlock device [IID] is installed. The device acts as a mini breathalyzer, testing blood alcohol levels and automatically locking the steering if you test positive.



California Third Offense DUI Penalties

A third DUI offense occurring within 10 years of the first DUI conviction will attract the following penalties:

  • Basic fines and court fees could total $2,800; the bill may escalate if the court orders victim compensation.
  • Minimum 120 consecutive days in jail, stretching up to one full year; work service conversion is one option; home arrest and compulsory rehabilitation are other alternatives. The court may order one or a combination of these options depending on the seriousness of aggravating circumstances.
  • Three to five years formal probation running in continuum with the Southern California Alcohol and Drug Program (SCADP).
  • 18 months compulsory DUI education class in county’s listed schools.
  • If you have agreed to chemical and breathalyzer testing, the court may decide on 24-months restricted license allowing you to drive anywhere with an IID installed. Offenders resisting blood alcohol testing face harsher 3-year license revocation without any recourse to restricted licensing.

California Fourth DUI Offense Penalties

Under California DUI Laws escalating DUI to the level of a fourth offense within 10 years of a prior conviction is a serious felony. The punishment is a straight three-year jail term, besides losing one’s driving privileges permanently.

A. The California DUI is injury related

If any third party suffers an injury in a DUI related offense, the seriousness of the penalty escalates beyond standard DUI. The DUI becomes a “wobbler” – one in which the judge may treat the offense either as a misdemeanor or a felony. If judged as a misdemeanor, the offender receives a jail sentence not exceeding one year. If judged as a felony, the penalty escalates to a prison sentence for three to four years. Depending on the history and gravity of past convictions, fines could go up to $5,000.


  • Additional penalties that will run concurrently with jail time:
  • The vehicle is impounded for a minimum of 6 months.
  • Mandatory 3-years Ignition Interlock Device stipulation and jail time in the following circumstances:
  • Minor below 15 years was accompanying the offender in the vehicle.
  • Driving is judged as reckless and speed limit exceeded 30 mph on the freeway.
  • Driving is judged as reckless and speed limit exceeded 20 mph on any road other than a freeway.
  • BAC exceeded 0.15% or read 0.20% or above.
  • The offender resisted attempts to take chemical or breathalyzer testing.
  • The offender was underage or was driving in violation of probation when resisting preliminary alcohol-screening.
  • DUI is detected while driving through a highway under construction or maintenance.
B. The California DUI involves murder charges As per California Drunk Driving Laws if a DUI results in the death of a third party, the state may prosecute the defendant either for vehicular manslaughter or for second-degree murder. The charges could be framed in the following ways:
  • Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, acting with ordinary negligence – judged to be a misdemeanor.
  • Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, acting with gross negligence – judged either as a misdemeanor or felony.
  • Second-degree murder charges are framed where the prosecution believes that the defendant acted with deliberate malice or showed a reckless disregard for life and property while driving under the influence.
The penalty for a misdemeanor charge is one year in jail time and a maximum fine of $1,000, while a murder charge attracts 15-year prison sentence along with $10,000 in fines.

California Three Strikes Law and DUI

In California, the three strikes law can be invoked to substantially extend prison sentences of offenders that commit violent felonies. Parole eligibility arises only after serving 25 years.

DUI offenses falling under the most serious categories that involve life-threatening injury or death now fall under the purview of the three strikes law. This involves larger prison sentences, steeper fines, and permanent license revocation. Besides the cost of hiring DUI counsel, there may be expensive civil lawsuits to defend.