Drunk Driving Laws Vary From State to State

Drunk driving

Doug Menuez / Forrester Images / Getty Images

Laws regarding drunk driving vary from state to state, although all states in the U.S. have increased penalties for drunken driving in recent years.

If you have been arrested for driving under the influence or if you regularly get behind the wheel while drinking alcohol, you may want to familiarize yourself with the details of the drunk driving laws in your state.

These laws take into account more that what your blood-alcohol content is while you are driving, they also outline what your penalties might be and what requirements you may have to meet to have your driver's privileges returned.

Most states have laws on the books to address these following issues.

Per Se DUI Laws

Every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia now have per se drunk driving laws, which means that if a driver is found to have a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 or greater, that driver is guilty of driving under the influence based on that evidence alone.

Legal BAC Level for Intoxication

Every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia has a law setting up the blood-alcohol content of 0.08 as the level of being legally intoxicated. However, there is an effort by advocates to further lower that limit to 0.05 or lower, as it is in most European countries.

Zero Tolerance

All 50 states have zero tolerance laws that charge drivers under the age of 21 for operating a motor vehicle with BAC levels as low as .01 or .02. In some states, an underage drinker can be charged drunk driving even with a BAC level of .00, if the arresting officer smells alcohol on the driver.

Enhanced Penalty BAC Level

Many states, if not all, have laws that increase the penalties for drivers whose blood-alcohol content levels are recorded at a certain level over the legal limit. Usually, if someone has a BAC of 0.15 or 0.20 the penalties for DUI are enhanced.

Implied Consent Laws

In all states, when you apply for a driver's license you are giving your implied consent to take field sobriety tests if asked and submit to breath tests. You can refuse to take those tests, but implied consent laws set up penalties for refusing which are on top of any penalties for driving while intoxicated.

On June 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed standing lower court rulings that states may not use implied consent laws to force driver's to take more intrusive blood tests for DUI. Police must obtain a valid search warrant to obtain a blood test from a suspected drunken driver. The same ruling, however, allowed implied consent laws for breath tests to remain intact.

Open Container Laws

Many states have laws prohibiting the possession and drinking from an open alcoholic beverage container from inside a vehicle or in public places. In most states, no one in the vehicle can have an open container, but in a few states, only the driver is prohibited.

License Suspension or Revocation

All states have laws which allow your driver's privileges to be suspended or revoked if you are driving under the influence. In most states, the suspension of your license is an administrative action by the Department of Motor Vehicles or similar agency and not a criminal penalty.

Therefore, in certain circumstances, your license can be suspended before you are found guilty in a court of law, for example, if you refuse a breath test.

What differs from state to state is how long a driver's license is suspended and what is required to get the license back.

Hardship License

Many states have provisions to allow drivers to apply for a hardship license even when their driving privileges have been suspended. The hardship license generally allows the driver to drive only to work, to church, or to an Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. These laws vary widely from state to state.

Mandatory Jail Time

Most states have laws requiring mandatory jail time for some level of violation of driving under the influence. For example, some states require that repeat DUI offenders serve some jail time. However, more and more states are moving toward mandating some jail time for the first DUI offense, even if it is only 24 hours behind bars.

However, jail time is usually reserved for a drunk driver with multiple convictions or for those who injure or kill someone as a result of their driving while intoxicated.

Mandatory Alcohol Education and Assessment

In all states, if you are convicted of DUI, you have to meet certain requirements before you can legally drive again. It many states this involves being evaluated for a drinking problem, attending educational classes (usually know as DUI school), and depending on the evaluation, attend a number of A.A. meetings or some other treatment program.

These steps are not mandatory, you don't have to go to classes or A.A. But, in many states, you have to if you want your license returned.

Ignition Interlock

To ensure drunk drivers do not continue to drive while intoxicated, more and more states are requiring that ignition interlock devices be installed on their vehicles. Some states require them for repeat offenders, but more and more states are requiring them for first-time offenders.

In all states, the offender has to pay for the costs involved in installing and monitoring the devices. What varies from state to state is how long the devices have to be used and at what point they have to be installed—first, second, or third offense.

Vehicle Confiscation

As anti-drunk driving advocates push state lawmakers for greater and greater penalties for drunk driving, some states have passed laws that allow for the vehicle of those with multiple DUI conviction to be confiscated and impounded. Depending on the state, the confiscation can be temporary or permanent.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drug Per Se Laws: A Review of Their Use in States. 2010.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sobering Facts: Alcohol-Impaired Driving State Fact Sheets. Updated August 26, 2020.

  3. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD Announces First Endorsement of .05 BAC. 2019.

  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. State Profiles of Underage Drinking Laws.

  5. Governors Highway Safety Association. Alcohol Impaired Driving.

  6. Supreme Court of the United States. Birchfield. v. North Dakota, 2016.

  7. American Addiction Centers. Open Container Laws Within the United States. Updated January 16, 2020.

  8. Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Drunk Driving laws.

  9. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Sober to Start.