Are Criminal Consequences of Driving Drunk Too Lenient?


Thirty years ago, getting behind the wheel after a night of partying was considered no big deal. Since the enactment of various DUI laws and the foundation of such organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980, though, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol has become not only a crime, but a social faux pas. But how effective are the laws?

Consider the story of LeRoy Sharp, a New York man who is going to prison for the first time-after five DWI convictions. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, Sharp was first convicted of DWI (or "driving while intoxicated," another term for DUI) in 1982. His subsequent convictions in 1988, 2002, and 2005 still resulted in no jail time.

New York state DUI law considers a second DUI conviction within 10 years of the first to be a Class E felony. Third and subsequent convictions are Class D felonies. Though Sharp-and the population of New York-was fortunate that no one was killed, the question remains: how much is too much drunk driving?

The case of Alton Ray Holston, as reported on, illustrates similar circumstances. Holston was arrested for a sixth DUI offense this August, while driving with a suspended license. The kicker? He's not an anomaly. Apparently, 24% of drunk drivers arrested in California are repeat offenders. So how are these people getting away with driving under the influence over and over again?

While every state with the exception of New Jersey considers driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated a crime, the criminal severity and DUI penalties vary widely from state to state.

If convicted of DUI, the minimum mandatory sentences nationwide are handed down in Iowa and Florida, where a mere 30 days of jail time is required. Those found guilty in Arizona, though, could receive up to 12 years in prison.

Arizona also has the highest possible fine of anywhere in the U.S. A DUI in the Grand Canyon state could cost up to $150,250. In California, the fine can be as small as $390.

And what about the severity of DUI? Predictably, not every state handles this offense in the same way. In Washington, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Maryland, for example, all DUIs are misdemeanors, no matter what the circumstances. In most other states, DUI offenses can be classified as felonies under certain conditions.

Most states have a time restriction on multiple-DUI offenders. In Idaho and Indiana, as few as two DUI convictions within five years can lead to a felony charge. In Wisconsin and North Dakota, you need five convictions in seven years for the DUI to be considered a felony.

Whether or not DUI laws are appropriate or effective is difficult to determine. People continue to drive drunk, and deaths from drunk driving accidents happen all too frequently. Regardless of how strictly your state punishes DUI or DWI, please remember to use public transportation or assign a designated driver when you plan to drink.

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