Vail Daily column: Colorado’s drunk driving laws
Like all other states, Colorado law prohibits a person from operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs or driving while the person’s ability to drive is impaired by alcohol or drugs. You are familiar with the abbreviation for these alcohol offenses already: “DUI” and “DWAI,” respectively.
Under the applicable Colorado statutes, “driving under the influence” means driving a vehicle when a person has consumed alcohol or one or more drugs, or a combination of alcohol and one or more drugs, that affects the person to a degree that he or she is substantially incapable, mentally or physically, to exercise clear judgment, sufficient physical control, or due care in the safe operation of a vehicle. “Driving while ability impaired” is similar, except that a person need only be affected to the slightest degree so that he or she is less able to drive than he or she ordinarily would have been.
Blood tests and breath tests play a prominent role in the enforcement of drunk driving laws, although DUI or DWAI can be proven by other means. A person is presumed to be DWAI if a blood test or breath test shows a blood alcohol level of more than 0.05 but less than 0.08. A person is presumed to be DUI if a blood or breath test shows a blood alcohol level of at least 0.08. A person may be classified as a “persistent drunk driver” and subject to greater penalties if the test shows a blood alcohol level of at least 0.17.
Let’s pause and put that in perspective. Let’s take your average 5 foot 9-1/2 inch American male whose weight is 191 pounds (according to government statistics, in 2002 that was the “average” American guy which, by the way, would make our average American male overweight and tilting towards obese). To have a blood alcohol level that would make him DWAI, should he choose to drive, he would need to consume four to five drinks with two hours. To register DUI, he would need to consume six drinks within a two hour period of time. To reach the “persistent” level, he would have to knock down 10 drinks or more in a two hour period.
An “average” 5 foot 4 inch, 164-pound woman would need to consume between three and four drinks to come up DWAI, four or more to be DUI, and seven in a two-hour period to register “persistent.” And, yeah, our average gal is a little plump around the edges, too; according to government statistics, she is clinically obese. Between our portly, inebriated couple, that’s a lot of support for the American brewing or distilling industries or for American’s finest vintners. If not exactly stimulating their brain cells in a boozy stew, at least they’re stimulating one part of the economy.
By the way, blood alcohol level is expressed in grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood or grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath. Accordingly, a blood alcohol level of .08 means 0.08 grams per 100 milliliters. For those of you who may be metrically challenged, 100 milliliters is about 3.4 ounces. A gram is 1/1,000 of a kilogram or about 0.035 of an ounce. So, 0.035 of an ounce of booze in three and half shot glasses of blood.
The law presumes that every driver has consented to take a blood, breath, saliva or urine test when requested to do so by a law enforcement officer who has probable cause to believe that the person is DUI or DWAI. Refusal to take the test is both admissible in court and a basis for revocation of a driver’s license.
There are both criminal penalties (fines, imprisonment, and required public service) and administrative penalties for drunk driving. Courts impose criminal penalties, and the Colorado Department of Revenue (the Department) imposes the administrative penalties.
Administrative penalties include the suspension or revocation of a license due to the commission of certain offenses or the accumulation of sufficient “points” assessed against one’s driver’s license for violations.
Sometimes a driver may reduce his or her criminal penalties through a plea bargain in court or by undergoing alcohol or drug treatment, but he or she must still face the administrative penalties enforced by the Department. In most cases, the Department does not have the authority to reduce or bargain away these penalties.
If you’re convicted of a DUI offense, will earn a nine-month suspension of your driver’s license for a first offense, one year for a second offense and two years for a third offense. Each offense earns you 12 points against your license. You may face from five days to a year in jail, between a $600 and $1,000 fine, and 48 to 96 hours of public service for a first offense; higher fines and public service for a second offense, and more jail time and more public service time for a third offense.
If you are under 21 years old and caught drinking and driving with a blood alcohol content of at least 0.02 but less than .05, you will lose your driver’s license for at least three months, have four points assessed against your license, will pay a fine, and may have to serve up 24 hours of public service.
DWAI convictions are generally subject to lesser penalties but can subject you to up to 24 months suspension of your driver’s license, 12 points against your license, can land you in jail for up to a year, subject you to up to a $1,500 fine and commit you to up to 120 hours of public service.
In some cases, a portion of the minimum mandatory jail sentence can be suspended if the person agrees to undergo an alcohol treatment program. In addition, persons who violate the state’s drunk driving laws may have to pay court costs, penalty surcharges of up to $500 to help pay for programs to address persistent drunk drivers, surcharges to benefit the crime victim compensation fund, fees to reinstate a driver’s license after suspension or revocation, and other fees, charges and penalties. The foregoing says nothing of the risk you pose to yourself and others, how your insurance rates will skyrocket and the costs of hiring a lawyer to defend yourself.
Other consequences may also follow. If alcohol or drugs are involved in an accident causing injury or death, the penalties for vehicular assault or vehicular homicide are more dramatically more stringent. Persons convicted of a third DUI or DWAI offense within seven years also face a mandatory five-year license revocation under the state’s “habitual traffic offender” statute.
Hey, if you’re gonna drink, maybe it’s just best to take the bus.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowners’ associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.