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DUI Laws in Pennsylvania

As with the rest of the country, the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) for the state of Pennsylvania (PA) is 0.08 percent.

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This limit was established in September 2003, under Act 24. A tiered approach to DUI treatment and enforcement was also enacted at that time.

What Are the Divisions of DUI in Pennsylvania?

In 2003, the state of Pennsylvania recognized three levels of DUI:

  • General impairment, where BAC could range from 0.08 to 0.099 percent
  • High BAC, with a BAC of 0.1 to 0.159 percent
  • Highest BAC, where BAC is 0.16 percent or higher

Under the old statutes, all levels of DUI were misdemeanors. Commercial drivers, school vehicle drivers, or minors who were involved in an accident that resulted in an injury or property damage could be subject to penalties associated with high BAC, even if their measured BAC was in a lower category. Higher fines and jail sentences could be implemented for having a higher BAC level or being a repeat offender.

An escalation of DUI-related offenses and people driving on suspended or revoked licenses related to DUIs have recently led to even more stringent penalties in Pennsylvania than previously existed.

A Worsening Problem

Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving  reports that as many as 140,000 residents have suspended licenses because of a DUI offense, and up to 75 percent of these people continue to drive illegally.

  • In 2016, more than 10,000 people were convicted of a repeat DUI incident in Pennsylvania.
  • Nearly 40 percent of traffic fatalities in the state related to alcohol are caused by repeat DUI offenders.
  • Pennsylvania has more than 50,000 new DUI cases every year.

Although Pennsylvania has always been very strict on DUI offenders, several high-profile cases and the above statistics led to new legislation being passed in 2018 to raise the penalties for drunk driving.

New Felony Penalties

The governor of Pennsylvania signed new legislation in the fall of 2018 to make penalties for DUI convictions stiffer and to create new felony categories for certain types of DUI offenses. Here is the breakdown:

  • First DUI offenses are generally misdemeanors.
  • Second DUI offenses are still generally misdemeanors, but there are some exceptions here. For example, an extremely high BAC or causing death or property damage could lead to felony charges.
  • Third DUI offenses can result in a felony if your BAC is 0.16 percent or higher or if the third DUI occurs within 10 years of the prior DUI offenses.
  • Fourth DUI offenses or higher are felonies regardless of BAC level.

Felony charges carry more severe jail penalties and fines than misdemeanor charges.

The minimum fine someone can expect for their second DUI conviction is $1,000 with a minimum jail sentence of 90 days. A third conviction or higher comes with a fine of $2,500 or more and six months or more in jail. Felonies tend to carry lengthy jail sentences compared to misdemeanors.

Other Sanctions

Repeat DUI offenders remain subject to other sanctions, including having to use an ignition interlock on their vehicle after being convicted of a second DUI or higher, having to attend treatment when ordered, probation, court costs, and any other sanctions that the judge believes are appropriate in the case.

The prior laws in Pennsylvania treated vehicular homicide cases as a result of DUI the same regardless of the person’s history of DUI offenses. The new law changes this.

Changes in Vehicular Homicide Penalties

Under the previous statutes in Pennsylvania, the maximum sentence that anyone would be dealt after a conviction of vehicular homicide while also being charged with a DUI was three years in prison, regardless of how many DUIs they incurred in the past.

Under the new law, if you are convicted of vehicular homicide while driving under the influence and have a prior DUI offense, you will face a minimum of five years in prison. If you have two or more prior DUIs, you face a minimum of seven years in prison.

Changes in Penalties for Driving With a Suspended License as a Result of DUI

A suspended driver’s license is a standard penalty for a DUI conviction. It is meant to discourage people from driving while intoxicated due to alcohol. However, as mentioned above, many people in Pennsylvania continue to drive even if their license is suspended as a result of DUI.

Under the old statutes, the maximum penalty for driving with a suspended license due to DUI was a fine of $500 and/or a sentence of up to 90 days in jail. Under the new statute, a first-time offense carries the same penalty as the old statute, but a second offense can be punished by up to a $1,000 fine and at least 90 days in jail. A third offense or higher results in a $2,500 fine and up to six months in jail.

You Can Be Charged With DUI if You Are a Passenger in PA

Under the new laws in Pennsylvania, any adult who is a passenger accompanying a driver who has a learner’s permit must be sober. If they are not, they can be charged with a DUI as a passenger.

What Are the Effects of More Stringent Laws?

Do more stringent penalties reduce the incidence of drunk driving or driving without a license in states that incur them? It’s tough to say.

As mentioned above, license suspensions for DUI offenses do not appear to work as well as hoped. The one thing the stiffer penalties do accomplish is that they tend to get repeat offenders off the road more efficiently (by jailing them). Continued exposure to treatment (along with lengthier jail sentences) may have the effect of eventually striking a chord in the person and helping them realize they have a problem.

However, even in states with extremely harsh penalties for repeat DUI offenders, the problem of repeat offenders remains.

The public typically does not protest stiffer penalties for DUI offenses. Addiction treatment providers suggest longer and more intensive treatment instead of incarceration as the answer.

Perhaps requiring repeat offenders to remain in some form of treatment for several years could help. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, effective treatment for substance use disorders does not have to be voluntary. Lengthier treatment involvement is associated with better long-term outcomes.

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