Just two days before Thanksgiving in 2021, a fatal collision happened on Interstate 91 in Windsor. A drunk motorist drove north in a southbound lane, crashing into two vehicles. One person died in the accident, and the guilty driver received a 5- to 15-year prison sentence.
This incident is an example of a drunk driving case with lifelong consequences. Whether one is a perpetrator or a victim of DUI, they suffer one way or another because the impact of impaired driving is broad, from physical injury and loss of income to loss of liberty or death.
In Vermont, while the number of DUI incidents has decreased in recent years, impaired driving remains a leading contributor to traffic fatalities. Vermont State Police recorded 51 crash fatalities in the first eight months of 2023 alone. Many of these incidents are DUI or alcohol-related.
If you suffered injuries or a loved one died in a car crash in Vermont due to DUI, it is important that you know the state’s car accident laws. This article, on the other hand, focuses on Vermont’s DUI laws. It aims to help you better understand the legal requirements for a DUI charge, the rights of a DUI suspect, the penalties for a DUI conviction, and the rights of drunk driving accident victims.
Vermont Law on DUI Involving Alcohol
23 V.S.A. § 1201 prohibits anyone from operating a vehicle if their blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 or more. The rules are stricter for commercial drivers, school drivers, and drivers under 21.
Commercial drivers have a BAC limit of 0.04, whereas school bus drivers cannot exceed 0.02. Because of the state’s zero-tolerance law, the BAC limit for drivers younger than 21 is 0.02.
Anyone found driving a vehicle in Vermont with a BAC that goes over the legal limit will face a DUI charge.
Vermont Law on DUI Involving Drugs
Operating a vehicle under the influence of illicit drugs, prescription medications, or marijuana could also result in a DUI charge in Vermont. Driving when intoxicated by a combination of drugs and alcohol has the same consequence.
Even if the driver can present a valid drug prescription, they can still be charged with DUI if the drugs affect their ability to drive safely. In other words, the basis for a DUI arrest is not the type of drug but the effect it has on someone’s driving behavior.
Police may stop a driver if they believe they are losing control of the vehicle, breaking a traffic law, or endangering other drivers. If they discover the driver to be under the influence of drugs, they may charge them with DUI.
Vermont Laws on DUI Arrests
Most DUI arrests come after a driver is pulled over for a traffic violation or reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.
Speeding, driving with a broken taillight, and having an expired registration sticker are just a few examples of traffic violations.
Reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, on the other hand, occurs when a car is changing speeds, swerving, or unpredictably switching lanes. Such an erratic driving pattern justifies the police stopping a vehicle.
If, during the police officer’s interaction with the driver, they find hints that the driver may be intoxicated, they may ask him or her to step out of the vehicle, take a standard field sobriety test, or submit to a preliminary breath test to determine their blood alcohol level.
Standardized Field Sobriety Tests
A series of SFSTs are administered before a police officer arrests someone for DUI. The results of the tests will establish whether there is enough evidence for a DUI charge.
There are three NHSTA-approved tests for DUI detection: the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, the Walk and Turn test, and the One Leg Stand test. Police officers conduct these tests on the side of the road.
To determine whether the suspect is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the officer will ask them to perform certain tasks that require focus, balance, and coordination. If a person fails all three tests, they are likely to be declared intoxicated.
HGN, WAT, and OLS are psychophysical tests that evaluate a driver’s ability to properly operate their vehicle and avoid accidents. After administering these tests, the police officer will request a roadside or preliminary breath test to gauge the person’s blood alcohol concentration. If the result exceeds the legal limit, then the police have probable cause to make a DUI arrest.
Rights of DUI Suspects
If you are arrested or under investigation for DUI, you must be aware of the following to safeguard your rights:
During roadside questioning, you may refuse to answer questions about your trip or whether you have consumed any alcoholic drinks.
The officer may not search your person or your car without your permission. If they have reason to believe your car is carrying illegal items, they need to first secure a search warrant.
You may refuse to submit to any field sobriety test without risk of punishment.
Prosecutors may not introduce as evidence in court the results of roadside breath tests.
If your breath test reading is 0.08 or more, you will be charged with “driving while under the influence” and “BAC of 0.08% or more,” but you can be convicted of only one offense.
During the arrest, the police will put you in handcuffs, place you in their vehicle, and take you to the barracks or police station for processing. Your car will be locked and towed unless you have a sober companion who can drive the vehicle away from the site.
You have the right to consult with an attorney before giving a sample for BAC evaluation. A lawyer can help you make an informed decision about whether to take or refuse the chemical tests.
Post-Arrest Chemical Tests
Following a DUI arrest, the police will conduct an evidential breath test in a secure place, such as a barracks or police station. Vermont police use the DataMaster DMT to collect breath samples from suspects, and breath alcohol analysis is performed at the Vermont Forensic Laboratory.
23 V.S.A. § 1202 permits a blood or saliva test if the following situations are true:
There is no available breath testing equipment;
The driver cannot produce a sufficient sample of breath for testing;
The officer has grounds to suspect that the driver is under the influence of drugs other than alcohol;
The suspect is unconscious, incapable of making a decision, or dead.
Vermont’s Implied Consent Law
All vehicle operators in Vermont are considered to have given their consent to be tested for alcohol or drugs under the state’s implied consent law. While DUI suspects have the right to refuse to submit to a chemical test, they must be aware that a refusal will have the following consequences:
The driver will get a license suspension of at least six months;
The prosecution may use the refusal as evidence in a criminal proceeding;
The suspect, if found guilty, could face a more severe punishment than if they had taken the test;
If the driver has a prior DUI conviction, they may be charged with criminal refusal, which, when repeated, carries stiffer penalties, including lifetime license suspension.
What Are the Penalties for a DUI in Vermont?
A first-time DUI violation in Vermont is a misdemeanor. The offender, if convicted, will get a prison sentence of up to two years, be liable for a fine of up to $750, and lose their driving privileges for up to 90 days.
A second violation is also considered a misdemeanor, but the penalties are greater than those for the first conviction. The driver may be required to render 200 hours of community service and pay up to $1,500 in fines. In addition, the commission of motor vehicles may suspend the driver’s license for up to 18 months.
A driver who has two prior DUI convictions will receive a felony charge if caught driving under the influence for the third time. The penalties for a third conviction include a maximum jail term of five years and a fine of up to $2,500. Additional penalties may be imposed, including the forfeiture and sale or immobilization of the driver’s vehicle.
DUIs that result in death or injuries are “aggravated DUIs.” Up to $10,000 in fines and 15 years in prison are the penalties for a DUI that leads to death. In the event of an injury, the driver will be fined up to $5,000 and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison if convicted of DUI.
DUIs with High BACs
Having a BAC greater than 0.15 warrants additional penalties in Vermont. In addition to the standard penalties, the driver will not be able to legally drive with a BAC of 0.02 or more for three years following their conviction. During this period, if the driver is caught with a BAC that is over the provisional limit, they will be charged with a DUI.
DUI Under 21
Vermonters less than 21 years old will have their driver’s license suspended for six months on a first DUI violation. If they incur a second violation, their license will be suspended until they turn 21. For all underage DUI offenders, attendance in an alcohol and driving program is mandatory. In addition, underage drivers will be subject to the same penalties as those imposed on adult drunk drivers if they produce a BAC of 0.08 or more.
Vermont Dram Shop Law
In Vermont, it is illegal to serve intoxicating liquor to minors, those who are clearly drunk, anyone ordering alcohol outside of the legal serving hours, and people who are likely to be intoxicated based on the amount of alcohol provided to them, even though they do not appear drunk.
Drinking establishments and social party hosts that unlawfully serve alcohol to a guest may be held liable for damages if the guest drives while intoxicated and causes injury to another. Thus, the victim may sue the establishment or host for damages.
The provider of alcohol, if found guilty, could receive a prison sentence of up to two years. In addition, they may be ordered to pay a fine of up to $2,000. The penalties are graver if the intoxicated person causes serious injury or death: the maximum prison term is five years, and the maximum fine is $10,000.
The possible defendants in a dram shop action are the merchant or host, as well as the landlord if the intoxicating liquor was served in a rental unit. However, the landlord may be exempt from liability if they were not aware or had no reason to be aware of the fact that the merchant or host was serving alcohol in violation of the dram shop law.
How Much Can Someone Sue for a Drunk Driving Injury in Vermont?
If you are injured in an accident due to a DUI, you may file a claim with the drunk driver’s insurance company to cover your medical expenses.
A lawyer can assist you in calculating the amount that you will pursue from the insurer. If you fail to reach an agreement with the other party, you can file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver or his or her company.
A lawsuit will allow you to pursue economic, non-economic, and punitive damages from the defendant. In drunk driving crash cases, punitive damages are often awarded to penalize the at-fault driver and prevent similar reckless behavior in the future.
No fixed formula is available for calculating the amount of punitive damages. The court bases the award on the degree of the defendant’s misconduct, the harm caused to the plaintiff, and the defendant's financial status.
As to the total recovery amount a plaintiff can receive, no cap on recoverable damages is in place in Vermont, except when the suit is against a state employee. In this case, where the defendant works for the state government, damages are capped at $500,000 per person and $2,000,000 per accident.
Statute of Limitations
Vermont has a three-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions. Thus, plaintiffs must bring a lawsuit for compensation within three years of the date of their injuries. Failure to meet the filing date will result in the victim losing their right to sue the defendant for the harm they suffered.
If a DUI accident results in death, the personal representative of the deceased may file a wrongful death suit within two years of the victim’s death. 14 V.S.A. § 149 provides the rules about wrongful death actions, including when the defendant is out of state.
If you or a loved one is a party in a DUI accident case, you can talk to a DUI or personal injury law attorney to ensure the prompt filing of claims.
Shared Fault Rules
12 V.S.A. § 1036 sets the rules for the award of damages when the plaintiff is partially at fault for their injuries.
An example of shared fault is when someone (Driver A) runs a red light and then hits another vehicle whose driver happens to be drunk (Driver B).
To recover damages, Driver A must prove that their injuries were due to Driver B being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In addition, Driver A’s fault must not exceed 50%; otherwise, they cannot receive compensation for their injuries.
If the plaintiff’s fault is less than 51%, their compensation will be reduced in proportion to their degree of fault or negligence.
So, suppose a plaintiff is found to be 30% responsible for their injuries, if the jury awards $300,000 in compensatory damages, the plaintiff will receive only 70% of the amount, or $210,000.
Resources for People Involved in Drunk Driving Accidents in Vermont
Whether you are a DUI plaintiff or a defendant, you can find legal help on the VBA website. Its Lawyer Referral Service provides free referrals, matching you with an attorney who is qualified to take your case. The service also offers a 30-minute consultation for $25. If you do not have the financial means to hire a lawyer, you can go through the VBA’s list of pro-bono service providers.
A wide range of resources are available on the Vermont Judiciary website, from specific topics like court fees and traffic violations to information about civil and criminal court procedures. People who have no lawyers can refer to the page about small claims. The site also contains guidelines on civil mediation for parties who wish to settle disputes without going to court.
The American Civil Liberties Union helps individuals fight for their constitutional rights. Its advocacy includes educating the public on how to protect themselves against abuses by those in authority. Motorists, who are vulnerable to arrests, can refer to the ACLU page on a person’s rights during police stops and questioning. The ACLU’s Vermont website contains information relevant to Vermonters, including the state’s “Reimagining Policing” campaign.
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