DUI Laws in California

In this article, we review DUI laws in California and the penalties you may face if you’re caught driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Have you been arrested for drinking and driving? This article reviews laws, penalties, and general legal procedures for DUI in California.


In California, DUI and DWI are relatively interchangeable terms.


A DUI means “driving under the influence” while DWI stands for “driving while intoxicated”. [1] They are both acronyms for driving with a blood alcohol content, or BAC, over the legal limit or driving while impaired due to drug use.

Across the country, the limit for BAC is 0.08% if you’re 21 or older. If you’re under 21, then the legal limit is 0.01%. If you’re caught breaking these limits, you will be charged with a DUI.

In the state of California, there usually is no difference between DUI or DWI. Both terms refer to alcohol or drug-related driving incidents.

The confusion between the definition of each lies in the fact that some states refer to a DUI when discussing an alcohol-related incident while using DWI to refer to a drug-related incident.Depending on the state and county you’re in, you may be charged with either a DUI or a DWI.

Furthermore, there are certain rules within the state of California. [2] For example, if you’re on DUI probation, you’re not allowed to have over 0.01% BAC in your system. Or if you’re in a vehicle which requires a commercial driver’s license, you can’t have a limit of more than 0.04% BAC.


In California, sobriety checkpoints are allowed. Sobriety checkpoints allow police to briefly stop vehicles at specific, highly visible locations to see if the driver is impaired. Police may stop all or a certain portion of drivers. At a checkpoint, breath tests may be given if police have a reason to suspect the driver is intoxicated.

What happens next?

If you’re pulled over and the breathalyzer shows that your BAC is higher than the legal limit to drive … or if you refuse testing, administrative license revocation or suspension laws allow police to take away your license. You will also be arrested.

If you’re arrested due to a DUI, the Department of Motor Vehicle will immediately take action and suspend or take away your license. This differs from the action which may be taken against you in court. Depending on your situation, you could face the following penalties in a court of law:

  • Completion of DUI school
  • Delay in Driver’s License
  • Fine
  • Jail time

Any court convictions will be placed on record. This is done for the sake of notifying the court if new convictions appear in the future. With that in mind, penalties worsen if you drive under the influence again.

Misdemeanor or Felony?

Whether you receive a misdemeanor or felony in a California court entirely depends on your situation. If you’re pulled over at a DUI checkpoint and are have over 0.08% BAC, you’ll most likely be charged with a misdemeanor. Most classes of misdemeanors result in the following:

  • A fine of $1,000.
  • Community service.
  • Counseling.
  • Probation.
  • Up to one year in jail.

However, if someone else is either hurt or killed in an accident due to your DUI, then you’re likely to face a felony. Additionally, misdemeanors and felonies are divided into classes to better suit different crimes. [2] For example, a first-degree felony is charged or the worst of crimes and can result in life in prison or even the death penalty.

1st DUI

If you’re a first-time offender, it’s in California’s best interest to make sure you don’t break the law again in the future. Therefore, much of the consequences you receive are to learn better from criminal tendencies.

Upon receiving your first DUI,you’ll be charged with a misdemeanor which usually results in the following consequences [4]:

  • A fine between $390 and $1,000.
  • Jail time between 48 hours and 6 months.
  • A 6 month license suspension.

In specific counties, such as Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Tulare, first-time offenders must install and preserve an ignition interlock device, or IID, for five months after completion of their license suspension.

2nd DUI

Upon receiving your second DUI in California, you’ll be again charged with a misdemeanor which usually results in the following consequences:

  • A fine of anywhere between $390 and $1,000.
  • Jail-time of anywhere between 96 hours to 1 year.
  • Alternate house arrest or work programs.
  • A 2 year license suspension.
  • Probation for 3 years and 18 to 30 months of DUI school.
  • Ignition interlock device for 12 months in some counties.

3rd DUI

Upon receiving your third DUI in the state, you’re likely to receive a higher level misdemeanor which usually results in the following consequences:

  • A fine of anywhere between $390 and $1,000.
  • Jail time of anywhere between 120 days to 1 year.
  • A one to three year license suspension.
  • Informal probation of 3-5 years with 30 months of DUI school.
  • Ignition interlock device for 24 months in some counties.

Why risk jail time? Call us to learn about rehab.

Jail Time

So, can you go to jail for DUI in CA?

Yes, jail time is possible for DUI convictions in California. In fact, you may receive a sentence with jail time for a DUI if:

  • Someone else was hurt due to your DUI.
  • You refuse checkpoint testing.
  • You enter a plea bargain.

If another person is killed in an accident due to the DUI, you’ll immediately be charged under California Penal Code 191.5 with vehicular manslaughter. This can result in anywhere between 2 years to life in prison, depending on past criminal charges.Further, if you’re DUI is due to drug-related issues and you’re caught in possession of drugs during the time of your arrest, you can expect to be prosecuted.

However, jail sentences are typically lower on your first offense cases. Sentencing terms rise if you re convicted of additional DUI offenses within a 10-year window. If these offenses are, jail sentences can also increase. You can expect increases in jail time sentencing for DUI if you:

  • Are under the age of 21.
  • Had a BAC of over 0.15%.
  • Had a child under the age of 14 in the car.
  • Were driving well over the speed limit.

In order to get a clear sense of whether or not you risk jail time and how much of it, you’re going to want to talk to a lawyer. Lawyers have the best understanding of your case and the consequences which may follow.

Classes and DUI School

Under Vehicle Code 23152, drivers convicted of a DUI or “wet” driving offense must enroll in a California DUI school. There are around 500 licensed DUI programs within California, all of which provide in-person classes. It should be noted, online classes DO NOT count towards California’s DUI programs.

The amount of time and money you spend on DUI school depends entirely on your situation. The following information is an estimated cost and classes provided by Shouse California Law Group:

  • Under-21 first offender- $270 – 12 hours
  • “Wet reckless” offender – $270 – 12 hours
  • First DUI with BAC of under 0.2 – $843 –30 hours within 3 months
  • First DUI with BAC of 0.2 or greater – $1,850 –60 hours within 9 months
  • Repeat wet reckless offender – $1,850 –60 hours within 9 months
  • Repeat DUI offender – $1,900 to $2,600 – 18 months
  • Repeat DUI offender with BAC of 0.2 or greater – $3,000 – 30 months
  • Repeat DUI offender with more than 2 offenses – $3,000 – 30 months

Again, the price and how much time you spend in DUI school will depend on the county you’re from and the specific laws of that area.

Repeat DUIs is a sign of a drinking problem.

Statute of Limitations

From the date of your DUI arrest, the district attorney has one year to file charges for a misdemeanor. If your case involves a felony, the government is allowed three years to file charges.

This means that if the state prosecutors don’t file a criminal charge within the limits, you’ll be free from prosecution. The logic behind this statute of limitations is that:

  • Eyewitness memory weakens over time.
  • Evidence worsens over time.

Furthermore, if you are charged with a DUI, it will stay on record for about a ten-year period. In some cases, DUIs are held on record for an indefinite period. These statute of limitations are for first-time offenses and WILL DIFFER with a second or third-time offense. You can contact the county’s public record office where you were convicted of DUI for more information.

Your DUI record is logged in the judicial system for 10 years.


Many people look at expungement as a “do-over”. It is possible in California. The practice of expungement is authorized under Penal Code 1203.4. Usually, people seek out this option when trying to find a job.

However, the only way to expunge a DUI off your criminal record is to do so after the case is over.
Anyone who received a California misdemeanor or felony will be allowed expungement from their DUI as long as:

  • They’ve completed their probation for the offense.
  • Didn’t serve time in a state prison.
  • You’re covered by the realignment law under Proposition 47.

In order to receive an expungement, you must petition the court of your conviction. Your petition will then be handed to a judge for review and s/he will determine your eligibility. If you are eligible for expungement, you’ll be granted the ability to enter a “not guilty” plea or given a verdict to expunge your record.

It should be noted that the main purpose for expunging DUI charges is for the sake of employment. If you were to receive another DUI within a 10-year period, your conviction will still be tracked as a “prior offense” in the same manner as if it had not been expunged.

Considering your options? Ever thought about rehab?

DUI Lawyer Costs

It’s no secret that lawyers are expensive. When it comes to DUI charges, there are some instances where accepting the consequences is less consequential than hiring a lawyer. This is due to the wide range of lawyer costs within the state of California.

For this example, we’ll be using Los Angeles county where a basic lawyer with just enough experience will cost you anywhere between $2,500 to $3,500. As you can see, if you’re a first time offender, that price is already more than the fine you might be given for your DUI.

However, if you want a good lawyer, you’re going to be looking at a cost of around $4,000 to $5,500. If you’re looking to hire a great lawyer with plenty of experience defending people with DUI’s, you’re going to pay a price which exceeds $6,000.

A lawyer may sound like a good option in order to reduce the penalties you’ll receive from your DUI. However, it must be noted all the other expenses a DUI comes with. For example:

  • Courts and fines will add up to around $2,000.
  • DUI School can be anywhere from $400 to over $1,000.
  • Your insurance rates will go up to around $2,500 per year.
  • You might receive an ignition interlock device which can cost $500 or more.

Drug courts can order rehab in lieu of penalties.

Is Rehab an Option?

As mentioned above, it’s in California’s best interest to get criminals off the streets and offer them the help they need. Therefore, if you’re facing a DUI in California, it’s in your best interest to look into drug courts in your area. Drug courts can order rehab in lieu of other penalties.

A drug court is a specialized court which offers different possibilities other than traditional imprisonment for drug and alcohol use. Both adults and juveniles have access to these courts. According to the Judicial Branch of California, the goal of these courts:

  1. Decrease the likelihood of a repeat criminal offense and drug abuse amongst those who offend.
  2. Increase the chances of offenders successfully reach sobriety through treatment.

Under the Assembly Bill No. 848, certain offenders are granted access to treatment facilities and other initial treatment services. However, your allowance for a drug court will depend on your case. If you are sentenced with a misdemeanor, you’re more likely to gain access to a drug court than someone sentenced with a felony.

Again, speak with a lawyer for more information about this option.

Your Questions

If you have any further questions pertaining to DUI laws in the state of California, we invite you to ask them below. If you have any further information on California DUI laws, we’d also love to hear from you. We try to reply to each comment in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources
[1] NHTSA: Drunk Driving
[2] State of California: Blood Alcohol Limits
[3] Driving Laws: Penalties for DUI in California
[4] California DMV: Driver Safety School
NHTSA: Crash Stats
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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