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Never take a first offense DUI lightly. The first DUI is a misdemeanor, which makes it a criminal offense punishable with a fine and jail time for up to one year. All states require license suspension as well, which is often inconvenient for your household and employer. Here’s what happens when you get a DUI for the first time—and why you may need a lawyer to defend you.

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What Counts As A First Offense DUI?

If you’ve never committed a DUI previously, your first DUI is considered a first offense. However, the court may still treat a subsequent DUI as a first offense, depending on the state’s look-back period.

The “look-back or washout period” is the amount of time a DUI offense stays on your driving record. It can determine the seriousness of a DUI offense.

For example, the look-back period in California is 10 years. So, if the court convicted you of a DUI in 2000, and your second DUI happens in 2011, that is not within the lookback period. The Court will treat the 2011 DUI as a first offense DUI. However, if your second DUI occurs in 2005, that 2005 DUI will be treated as a second offense.

Look-back periods matter because of how penalties are determined. A first DUI conviction in California is punishable with fines from $390 to $1,000 and 48 hours to 6 months in jail. If your DUI is the second offense within 10 years, your potential jail sentence ranges from 96 hours to 1 year.

Other states may be less forgiving. Texas, for example, doesn’t have a look-back period. Your DUIs could be 20 years apart, and the judge will still consider the older offense in your conviction.

Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and Rhode Island are the most lenient states with a look-back period of only five years.

What Happens When You Get A DUI?

Generally, DUI convictions proceed as follows:


All DUIs start with an officer pulling you over and determining you’re intoxicated. However, they can’t pull you over unless they have “reasonable suspicion” of your intoxication.

Examples of reasonable suspicion include:

  • Illegal turns
  • Excessive speed or slowness
  • Lane weaving
  • Frequent braking
  • Driving on the centerline

However, reasonable suspicion doesn’t apply to DUI checkpoints. Officers can stop anyone at a checkpoint, even if there’s nothing wrong with the way they’re driving.

Once stopped, however, the officer must have “probable cause” to arrest you. Probable cause can be established by performing a field sobriety test or determining your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) with a breathalyzer. In most states, you’re driving while intoxicated if your BAC is 0.08 or above.

First Court Appearance

Your first court appearance is the arraignment. This is the initial step of a criminal case that involves a short hearing. You’ll plead guilty or not guilty and hear the conditions of your release until trial. These conditions may include:

  • Bail or bond
  • No access to alcohol or mood-altering substances
  • Random drug or breath tests to ensure continued sobriety
  • Require ignition interlock device installation

If you violate your conditions of release while waiting for trial, you’ll likely be returned to jail with little chance of re-release. Violations can also mean harsher penalties later.

License Suspension

License suspension is an administrative penalty that’s separate from your criminal case and determined by your state’s DMV. All but nine states require a license suspension or revocation after a DUI conviction.

Generally, the suspension starts immediately because the arresting officer takes your driver’s license. Then, you receive a letter from the DMV announcing your suspension and hearing date. At the hearing, you can agree to an ignition interlock device as a condition to continue driving or request a restricted license to continue driving for your job.


Getting a DUI may result in fines, jail time, and probation. Fines are usually under $1,000 for first-time DUIs.

Jail sentences are usually short—at least 24 hours but no more than six months. Some states allow for electronic home monitoring (EHM) instead of jail, but those sentences are longer. In Washington, a driver can serve 15 days EHM instead of an in-jail sentence for a first-time DUI.

Probation typically accompanies mandatory drug and alcohol treatment. This penalty is common if the driver blew at least 0.15 BAC or refused the test.

What Are Longer-Term DUI Consequences?

Consequences often go beyond court sentences and DMV suspensions. Once convicted, you may face a number of additional costs:

Higher Insurance Costs

Once convicted, you are required to carry SR-22 insurance. The SR-22 is a statement of financial responsibility required by state law. It is proof of minimum coverage and costs more than typical car insurance.

Also, a DUI labels you a “high-risk” driver, raising your rates. Your company may terminate your coverage or charge double or triple your usual rate for several years.

Ignition Interlock Expenses

An ignition interlock device (IID) connects to your engine and keeps it from starting unless you first blow a clean breath sample. If the DMV imposes one as a condition to driving, you must pay for the device and its installation, plus a monthly subscription cost.

Negative Background Check Information

Employers, landlords, and colleges perform background checks before hiring you or allowing access to their services. A DUI shows up on these checks and may put you at a disadvantage when you seek jobs or return to school.

Daily Impacts

Mental health, relationships, and work performance often suffer after a DUI. License suspension limits your independence and ability to run errands, take vacations, or socialize. If you already have a long commute to work it will likely get longer if you need to find a ride or take public transportation.

Can A First Offense DUI Be A Felony?

Your first DUI could become a felony if you caused an injury accident. Otherwise, the court will treat it as a misdemeanor.

Can An Attorney Help With A DUI First Offense?

Yes! A DUI defense attorney offers the skills and experience to:

  • Investigate your arrest. If the arresting officer lacked reasonable suspicion, failed to inform you of your rights, or never told you that refusing a breathalyzer was a crime, your DUI may be dismissed
  • Find errors in chemical or field tests. Lab errors or misuse of devices can exclude evidence of your BAC from your trial and allow the court to dismiss your case
  • Negotiate on your behalf. A defense lawyer can negotiate with a prosecutor to reduce your charges from DUI to wet reckless or reduce your penalties

Are You Facing A First Offense DUI?

A first offense DUI is a jarring experience with significant life impacts. Finding a local DUI attorney is the best way to fight back and reduce penalties for DUI.

Legal Disclaimer: This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation and should not be interpreted as creating an attorney-client relationship. If you have legal questions, you should seek the advice of an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

Related Resources

Want to read more about DUI laws and what to do if you’ve been charged with one? Learn More from our Jalopnik Legal Team:

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