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DWI vs. DUI in California - What Is the Difference?

Most California drivers are aware of the terms “DWI” and “DUI,” which mean “driving while impaired” and “driving under the influence,” respectively. While some states use these terms to apply to specific actions, California makes no such distinctions, and these two terms are generally used interchangeably. In some cases, law enforcement officials and policymakers use “DUI” to refer to driving under the influence of alcohol and “DWI” to describe driving under the influence of drugs.

Any DUI or DWI charge in California carries severe penalties. A driver convicted of operating their vehicle under the influence of alcohol or other drugs faces a wide range of punishments, including fines, jail time, and loss of their constitutional rights. If they hurt or kill someone because they were driving while intoxicated, they likely face felony conviction and may spend several years in prison. They also face civil liability for victims’ damages or a wrongful death they cause.

California DUI Laws

California upholds similar standards for DUI as every other state. Generally, proving intoxication by alcohol is easier than proving intoxication by most illicit drugs and prescription medications. When it comes to alcohol, California uses the blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) measurement system to determine if a driver is under the influence of alcohol while driving. The legal limit for most drivers is .08% BAC. Anything above this limit, even.081% qualifies as a DUI violation. Commercial vehicle drivers have a lower BAC limit of .04%, and California enforces a Zero Tolerance policy for drivers under the age of 21 and drivers on probation for previous DUI convictions. This means if these drivers test positive for any detectable amount of BAC, they face prosecution for DUI.

For drug-related DWI cases, it is more difficult for police officers to test for some substances. Different drugs metabolize in the body at different rates, and some people metabolize certain substances more quickly than others. For example, marijuana use can be detected for up to one month after consumption using certain testing methods. However, the intoxicating effects of marijuana typically only last for several hours after consuming it. If a person smokes marijuana one day and then is pulled over the following day for suspected DWI, they could test positive for marijuana even though the intoxicating effects likely wore off hours before their traffic stop.

Potential Penalties for DUI

In California, DUI can qualify as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the details of the case. The penalties for DUI conviction also function on a sliding scale, increasing with subsequent convictions within a few years. For instance, if a person is convicted of a DUI and is then arrested a year later for another DUI offense, the penalties are much harsher for the second offense. The penalties for DUI in California typically include fines, penalty assessments, jail time, and driver’s license suspension.

Judges handling sentencing for DUI cases in California also have discretionary powers in some situations. This enables them to dictate alternative, diversionary, or additional penalties for certain cases. For example, if a driver is convicted of DWI and shows clear signs of a substance abuse disorder, the judge may order them to attend a rehabilitation program and/or drug and alcohol education class in addition to their other penalties.

Many people convicted of DUI offenses in California are required to attend victim impact panels, such as the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Victim Impact Panel. These panels require DUI drivers to confront people who have lost loved ones, including children, to intoxicated drivers. The purpose of these panels is to show DUI drivers that their actions are likely to profoundly affect the lives of innocent people and to discourage them from future violations.

Do I Need a Defense Lawyer for a DUI Case?

If you are charged with DUI or DWI in California, it’s a good idea to secure defense representation as soon as possible. Regardless of whether you were wrongfully arrested or you know you broke the law, it’s vital to have legal representation you can trust to help you navigate your case. Your defense attorney can determine whether your arrest was justified, whether the police upheld due process and followed appropriate procedures during arrest and booking, and whether the prosecution used legally admissible evidence in pursuing conviction.

If you have been wrongfully arrested for DUI, your attorney can help you gather contradictory evidence that helps you prove your innocence. If you did break the law, your defense lawyer may be invaluable for the plea bargaining process. In some cases, prosecutors are willing to agree to lighter sentences and/or reduced penalties in exchange for swift guilty pleas. A good defense lawyer can help you determine the best options available to you in your situation.


Q: Is Jail Time Mandatory for DUI in California?

A: Jail time is almost always a certainty for DUI conviction in California. Even a first-time offender will likely need to spend at least two days in jail, but a first offense can potentially lead to up to six months in county jail. If a defendant faces a felony DUI conviction, they will go to state prison instead and will likely spend at least 16 months behind bars.

Q: Can I Refuse a DUI Test in California?

A: California’s implied consent law pertains to chemical testing for DUI after a lawful arrest. If you are arrested for DUI after an arresting officer has appropriately established probable cause, you must submit to chemical testing for DUI under the implied consent law. If you refuse this test, you face an automatic administrative suspension of your driver’s license and the maximum sentence if convicted. Drivers are not obligated to submit to preliminary alcohol screenings from police officers prior to arrest unless they are under 21 years of age or on probation for prior DUI convictions.

Q: What Defenses Can Help Me Beat a DUI Charge in California?

A: If you were wrongfully charged with a DUI violation in California, your attorney may use several defenses on your behalf. They may assert that the arresting officer failed to establish probable cause to conduct the arrest. They may also cite problems with the administration of the chemical test you took after arrest, or they may challenge the testing lab’s results. It’s also possible to cite constitutional or civil rights violations by the police to have a case dismissed.

Q: How Long Does a DUI Case Take to Complete?

A: The criminal courts do their best to move cases along as quickly as possible. However, it can take several months before a DUI case concludes with long gaps between proceedings. Most DWI/DUI cases in California take three to six months to conclude.

Zentz & Zentz has years of experience defending California clients in DUI cases, and we can apply this experience to your case. If you are ready to discuss your defense options with a seasoned attorney, contact us today to schedule a consultation.

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