By Linda Ellingsworth
For most people, it all starts quite innocently. To celebrate the cheer of the holiday season, you go out to a friend’s house or bar.
One drink turns into two, two turns into three or more as the good times flow.
When it’s time to go home, you wonder if you should drive, but decide you can handle it. On the way home, you see flashing red lights in your rear view mirror. They’re meant for you, and when the officer administers a breath test, your blood alcohol level registers a .09.
At this moment, you are being arrested for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). Even if you have a previously clean driving record, your life is about to change.
“The consequences are significant and unpredictable,” said Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan.
And the consequences are swift. A DWI of this type (first offense, non-felony) mandates a minimum six-month license revocation by New York State Motor Vehicle law. According to Jordan, the revocation starts at arraignment, not conviction.
But that’s just the beginning. The minimum fine for this DWI is $500 and Jordan noted, it carries a $260 surcharge from the town or village where the arrest took place. There is also something called the driver’s responsibility assessment fee, which Jordan said is $250 per year for three years.
Add on the cost of attorney’s fees, which Jordan said could run from $1,000 to $3,000, and the numbers start to really add up. Still, you’re not done.
The court will likely order the installation of an ignition interlock device for 12 months on any vehicles that you own or operate. The device measures the alcohol content in the driver’s blood, and will not allow the car to start without an acceptable breath sample.
Installation of the device is the responsibility of the convicted driver, and can cost $200. In addition, Jordan said there is a $107 per month fee that the driver must pay for one year.
Lastly, your auto insurance premiums will increase.
As bad as this sounds, Jordan notes that it can get much worse.
“If you hit someone and kill or seriously injure them, you are now looking at a felony and state prison,” he said. “Not to mention the agony of knowing you killed or injured somebody.”
Once the charge is elevated to a felony, there is a very good chance of jail time and much higher fines.
Driving with higher blood alcohol levels also prompts higher penalties. With a reading of .18, the charge becomes Aggravated DWI. The minimum fine is now $1,000, and the minimum license revocation is one year. Get another DWI conviction within the next 10 years, and you have moved to a Class E felony, with the possibility of up to a $5,000 fine and four years in prison. Three DWI convictions within 10 years becomes a Class D felony.
While state law prescribes minimums for various levels of DWI, the outcomes can still vary.
“Drinking and driving is a fairly simple act,” said Jordan. “But the way it is addressed (by the state) is very complex.”
Indeed, the New York State DWI law is 57 pages long, he said. And it is continually changing, he said, making it difficult for defense attorneys.
Anyone thinking of avoiding all the grief of a DWI might be tempted to refuse the chemical test for blood alcohol content. While someone under arrest can legally refuse, the law in New York requires a $500 civil penalty for this, and a mandatory one-year license revocation.
Continue to drive while under this revocation and you have further complicated your life.
“If your license is suspended because of a DWI, it is a crime – a felony – to be driving,” said Jordan.
He noted that living in a rural area creates a bigger challenge to finding alternative transportation after a few drinks.
“I think rural communities struggle with it because of a lack of public transportation,” he said.
Yet the increased awareness and education of the consequences of driving while intoxicated over the past 30 or so years has made an impact, said Jordan, particularly on younger people.
“I would say the younger generation has greater awareness,” he commented.
However, one population segment – those with alcohol addiction — remains resistant to the message.
“Alcoholism is an addiction, and someone has to want to be able to deal with the challenge of that addiction,” said Jordan.
With felony treatment court, someone with a felony DWI conviction has the opportunity to turn their life around. The minimum one-year program offers treatment and requires community service time, but allows the person to avoid prison.
“That’s why felony drug court is so good,” said Jordan. “It is an arduous program, but with motivation and the proper tools, they can become a productive member of society.”