A closer look at New York’s impaired driving laws

It is common knowledge that driving under the influence of alcohol is against the law, but relatively few drivers have more than a basic understanding of what this really means. Because drunk driving laws vary significantly from one state to the next - and because ignorance of the law is no defense for those facing criminal charges - it is important for New York drivers to familiarize themselves with the laws that apply specifically to them.

DWI per se

At its most basic level, New York's drunk driving law is the same as those in every other state throughout the country: it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) measuring 0.08 or higher. This is what is known as a "per se" limit for driving while intoxicated, or DWI, which is also often referred to as Driving Under the Influence, or DUI. New York's per se drunk driving law means that a driver whose BAC meets or exceeds that threshold is considered legally intoxicated even if there is no other evidence that he or she is impaired.

A person can be convicted of driving while intoxicated solely on the basis of his or her BAC level, regardless of other circumstances, such as violating another traffic law or being involved in a crash. However, certain other factors - such as impaired with a child passenger, driving with an extremely high BAC level, or causing an injury or death while driving under the influence - can escalate impaired driving to an even more serious offense.

Driving while ability impaired by alcohol

In New York, drivers can also face penalties for impaired driving in certain circumstances even if their BAC levels fall below the 0.08 threshold for DWI. For instance, drivers whose BAC levels are at least 0.05 but less than 0.08 can be charged with Driving While Ability Impaired by Alcohol, or DWAI.

Unlike a per se DWI charge, however, DWAI requires prosecutors to present additional evidence that the driver's abilities were impaired due to alcohol consumption. In other words, BAC alone cannot determine that a driver is guilty of DWAI. Drivers convicted of DWAI in New York can face mandatory fines and driver's license suspensions, as well as the possibility of jail time.

Drugged driving

Just as it is against the law to drive while impaired by alcohol, it is also illegal under New York law to drive while impaired by drugs. This law applies not only to street drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, but also to painkillers and other prescription drugs, which are increasingly used for recreational purposes. The penalties for DWAI-drugs mirror those that apply in DWI cases.

In recent years, New York law enforcement has increased its focus on the issue of drugged driving. According to the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services, the number of drivers arrested annually in New York for driving while ability impaired by drugs, or DWAI-drugs, has increased by at least 35 percent since 2001. Part of that increase is attributed to a relatively new program that trains officers to recognize the signs that a driver may be under the influence of drugs.

Aggravated DWI

People convicted of driving with BAC levels far above the legal limit can be charged with Aggravated DWI, which may result in harsher penalties than those imposed for ordinary DWI. In New York, Aggravated DWI charges may apply when a driver's BAC levels are 0.18 or higher.

For a first offense, the penalties for conviction of Aggravated DWI in New York include fines of up to $2,500, driver's license revocation of at least one year, and imprisonment for up to one year. For repeat offenses, these penalties increase substantially.

Implied consent

Like many states, New York has adopted what is known as an "implied consent" law. This means that anyone who operates a motor vehicle in New York is considered by law to have given his or her consent to undergo BAC testing if police determine that there are reasonable grounds to believe the driver is under the influence of alcohol.

New York's implied consent law does not mean that police are authorized to conduct BAC testing on drivers any time they wish. For example, it is against the law to require BAC testing because of discriminatory factors such as race or nationality. Likewise, police cannot require drivers to undergo BAC testing on the basis of non-specific factors such as hunches or gut feelings.

Instead, police must have specific, identifiable reasons for concluding that a driver may be under the influence of alcohol, such as observing an odor of alcohol, slurred speech, erratic driving or the presence of an open alcohol container in the vehicle. If police conduct BAC testing without sufficient justification, it may be possible to have the test results excluded from trial, thus reducing the likelihood of conviction.

Refusing a BAC test in New York

Despite the state's implied consent law, New York drivers generally cannot be forced to undergo BAC testing against their will. An exception applies in cases involving injury or death of another person; even in these cases, however, police must first obtain a court order from a judge. In New York, this process can often be conducted relatively quickly by telephone.

Although most drivers who decline to take a BAC test in New York will not have one forcibly administered to them, refusing the test can have serious consequences that apply regardless of whether the driver is ultimately convicted of an impaired driving offense. For a first-time BAC test refusal, for instance, a driver can be subject to a mandatory driver's license suspension of at least six months, as well as an administrative fine of $300 or more, in addition to any other penalties he or she may be facing if also convicted of DUI.

DWI penalties

The penalties for conviction of a drunk or drugged driving offense in New York can vary greatly depending on the circumstances of the case. However, most cases will involve some combination of monetary fines, jail time and license suspension or revocation, in addition to other legal and non-legal consequences.

In certain cases involving repeat convictions for impaired driving, New York law provides that a driver's license may be permanently revoked for life. In other cases, a driver convicted of DWI in New York may be required to use an ignition interlock device for a period of months or years after his or her license is reinstated.

Call a lawyer for help protecting your rights

If you are arrested for drunk driving, it is in your best interest to invoke your right to remain silent and get in touch with a DWI defense attorney right away. A lawyer with experience defending against impaired driving charges in New York will be able to advise you of your options and help you weigh the pros and cons of each available course of action.

However you choose to proceed with your case, your attorney will advocate strenuously on your behalf and fight hard to protect your rights and legal interests are protected every step of the way. Although it is not always possible to do so, a skilled defense lawyer may even be able to negotiate with prosecutors to have the charges against you dropped or reduced, or otherwise minimize the negative consequences of the arrest.