The red and blue lights flash in the rearview mirror. The driver, even befuddled, knows that that means.
When the driver rolls down the window as the officer comes to the door, the smell of alcohol or marijuana may be so overwhelming it can produce a contact high.
The driver crawls out of the front seat and fails the breathalyzer test, blowing .09 percent on the Blood Alcohol Content test. Years ago, that might have not be considered driving while under the .08 limit by some, but because Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other groups have spent years educating the public about the devastation that can be left behind, laws got tougher, said Newton County Probate Judge Henry Baker.
“MADD pushed the[lawmakers] to get tougher in the ‘80s,” he said.
During that time, the federal government changed the definition of a DUI, lowering the percentage of BAC considered driving under the influence from 1 percent to .08 percent, Baker said. Because federal highway funds were tied to the federal definition of DUI, most states adopted the .08 percent BAC limit.
“We see very few DUIs,” he said. “The cost is so great that folks think twice about driving under the influence.”
For the most part, a person charged with a DUI will appear before the Probate Judge. However, District Attorney Layla Zon said a DUI will come to the DA’s office if someone asks for a jury trial, or if a person with a misdemeanor DUI is brought in on a warrant.
The first DUI can carry a $300 to $1,000 fine, the second $600 to $1,000 and the third, $1,000 to $5,000, Zon said. “The fourth [DUI] in 10 years is a felony and carries one to five years in prison.”
With the second DUI, there is a photo fee, Zon said. The driver convicted of a second DUI, will have to pay a photo fee to have their photo published in a local newspaper. In addition to the photo fee, the cost of a second DUI offense increases all other fines and penalties, the amount of time spent in jail and a minimum three-year-suspension of a driver’s license.
Though still considered a misdemeanor, a person’s third DUI will cost even more in fees, fines, jail time, length of license suspension and the possibility of being uninsurable.
After a fourth conviction, the offense is no longer classified as a misdemeanor, but as a felony and driver is considered a habitual offender.
“Generally a fine is $ 750 to $1,000.00 and then there are applicable surcharges as required by law,” Zon said.
“There are all kinds of different nuances,” she said, explaining that each case and the charges applied can be different.
“They [the fines and fees] can add up. Every fine or fee we recommend the court impose is what is required by law; if they do need treatment, that’s done through Probation.”
The judge can also order the driver to do community service, she said.
A drug and alcohol evaluation may also be ordered.
A substance abuse evaluation
“Fifty percent [of those evaluated] are referred to treatment based on the evaluation,” said Dr. Scott Dunbar, Director of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities DUI Intervention Program.
If they are mandated to attend drug and alcohol treatment, Dunbar said, they will usually be referred to a group that meets weekly for three hours. The cost is $50 per session.
Dunbar said that “if someone has two DUIs, more than five years apart but within 10 years, based on dates of arrest, they have to have a clinical evaluation and complete treatment if recommended.”
For those who hire a lawyer, fees can be charged by the hour or as a flat fee.
Thomas J. Thomas is a partner at Thomas, Webb and Wills, LLC, in Atlanta, a law firm that specializes in criminal law, including DUI charges. Because the firm specializes in criminal law, their rates might be higher than an attorney practicing more general law. However, Thomas said his firm charges a flat fee of between $1,500 and $2,000 for a simple plea, and $5,000 if the driver is contesting the DUI charge.
While years ago a driver could plead no lo contender, meaning the person charged will pay the fee without admitting guilt, today, a no lo contender plea in Georgia is taken as admission of guilt, Thomas said.
He said it’s also rare for a driver to plea down a DUI to a reckless driving charge. “It’s rare to have a negotiated plea DUI to a reckless charge,” he said. “It will read as a DUI on your record, regardless.”
Fees, fines ... and premiums
The court fees and fines, the evaluations and legal fees may not be the biggest cost. No, that might come from increases in the cost of insurance.
“If you have a DUI on your record, it shoots it up,” Baker said. “If you have two, you’ll have to scramble to get someone to write you insurance.”
According to Robert C. Passmore of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, the escalation of insurance claims in a major metropolitan area has increased significantly, and Atlanta is second only to Washington DC in the number of claims filed.
“The two things that drive costs, is the number of claims and the amount [the claims] cost,” Passmore said. The cost of repairing today’s sophisticated cars as well as medical costs have increased substantially.
A driver with a DUI on their record has just increased their risk of having an accident, something insurance companies factor into premiums. Insurance premiums locally, already in one of the top 10 metro markets in the country, can go up three to four times the pre-DUI amount.
“The penalties go up with the number of offenses,” he said. “The insurance ramifications escalate as well; you could be cancelled or not renewed.”
Passmore said that a insurance companies don’t look back more than a couple of years. “If you can keep your nose clean for a couple of years, you can restore your insurance level [to pre-DUI standings],” he said.
While a DUI will stay on a driver’s record for life, in Georgia, the DMV will provide employers and insurance companies with reports covering three-years and seven-years. (Georgia State Department of Motor Vehicles)
Fleet insurance may be nearly impossible to get for someone with a DUI on their record. For bus drivers, truck drivers and other jobs that require driving, some state and federal laws ban the employment of anyone with a DUI.
“If you’re going to drive for a living, the stakes are a little bit higher,” Passmore said. “In some cases there are state and federal laws against driving if you have certain type of convictions. If you have a DUI that makes you a less attractive candidate.”
While some offenses can be removed from the record, DUIs are only expunged “if you can prove it was someone else used your ID and pled guilty,” Baker said. “We’ve had some do that — use a relative’s ID and [the license-holder] didn’t find out about it until went to get a license renewed.”