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Driving under the influence (DUI) is a serious offense in California that can lead to significant legal and financial consequences.

According to the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), 26.3% of all traffic deaths in the state involved an impaired driver. This sobering statistic demonstrates the importance of understanding California's DUI laws, penalties, and resources available to those affected by drunk driving accidents. 

To help you better understand how to stay safe on the road, here’s an overview of California's DUI laws, including legal limits, penalties, dram shop liability insurance requirements, and resources available for individuals injured by drunk drivers.

Legal Limit in California

In California, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher. The legal limit is lowered to 0.04% for commercial drivers and 0.01% for drivers under the age of 21. It is also illegal to drive while under the influence of drugs, including marijuana, even if you have a valid prescription.

Drivers should also keep in mind that they can get arrested on suspicion of drunk driving even if they are below the legal limit.

If you are suspected of DUI, you may be asked to take a breathalyzer, blood, or urine test to determine your BAC. Refusing to take these tests can result in automatic license suspension and other penalties.

Implied Consent Law

California has an implied consent law, which means that anyone who operates a motor vehicle is deemed to have given consent to a chemical test to determine their BAC or the presence of drugs in their system. 

This law is meant to make it more difficult for individuals to escape punishment while driving under the influence.

Due to this rule, refusal to take a blood alcohol or drug level test can result in a fine and automatic license suspension. Drivers who violate this law will lose their ability to legally operate a motor vehicle for up to a year or up to two years if the offense occurs within ten years of a separate conviction related to operating a motor vehicle. Refusing a test can also be used as evidence against the driver in court, resulting in enhanced penalties if they are ultimately convicted of a DUI.

Zero Tolerance Law

In California, it is illegal for drivers under 21 years old to have any measurable amount of alcohol in their system while driving. This is known as a "zero tolerance" law, and violators may face fines, license suspension, and mandatory alcohol education.

Enhanced Penalties for High BAC

California has enhanced penalties for drivers with a BAC of 0.15% or higher. The California Vehicle Code states that having a BAC this high is “a special factor that may justify enhancing the penalties in sentencing, in determining whether to grant probation and, if probation is granted, in determining additional or enhanced terms and conditions of probation.”

These penalties can include higher fines, longer license suspensions, and mandatory installation of an ignition interlock device. You may also have to meet other conditions, such as completing an alcohol education program, to restore your driving privileges.

Ignition Interlock Device Requirement

In California, ignition interlock devices (IID) are required for all DUI offenders, even first-time offenders, in the following circumstances: 

  • If the offender's blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.15% or higher

  • If the offender refused to submit to chemical testing after being lawfully arrested for DUI

An IID is a breathalyzer device installed in the offender's vehicle and requires the driver to blow into the device before starting the vehicle. If the device detects a BAC above a certain threshold, the vehicle will not start. The offender is responsible for the cost of installing and maintaining the IID, which can range from $50-$150 per month.

Marijuana DUI Laws

In California, it is illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana. The legal limit for THC (the psychoactive compound in marijuana) in the blood is five nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) for non-commercial drivers and zero ng/mL for commercial drivers. 

However, unlike alcohol, no conclusive scientific evidence shows a direct relationship between a specific level of THC in the blood and impairment. This means that a driver can still be charged with a DUI even if their THC level is below the legal limit if they are found to be impaired while driving. The penalties for a marijuana-related DUI in California are the same as those for an alcohol-related DUI.

Intent to Drive

In California, you must be operating a vehicle to be charged with a DUI, meaning drivers may be able to avoid being charged or arrested for a DUI by sleeping in their vehicles. However, you may still be charged if you demonstrate intent to drive.

Actions like turning the steering wheel or putting your key in the ignition can demonstrate your intent to drive while under the influence, leading to your arrest.

It’s important to note that even if you were to sleep in your car with no intent to drive, you could still be charged with a DUI. However, you could use the fact that you were asleep in the backseat and there was no key in the ignition as a viable defense.

Biking DUIs

Some drivers might think they can circumvent California DUI laws by riding a bike or electric scooter.

However, California considers both bikes and scooters to be vehicles. This means that riding either of these while over the legal limit can result in a DUI. This also applies to operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

License Reinstatement

While not always the case, many DUI arrests lead to the suspension of the driver’s license for a specified amount of time.

Generally, you will need to wait for this time period to pass before being able to reinstate your licenses. However, in some cases, drivers can apply for a hardship license. A hardship license allows people with extenuating circumstances to continue to drive despite having their license revoked.

You’ll need to complete a California Proof of Insurance Certificate to reinstate your license. You must show proof of having a minimum of $15,000 in bodily injury liability per person, $30,000 in bodily injury liability per accident, and $5,000 in property damage reliability coverage.

“Wet Reckless” Plea Bargain

Drivers charged with a DUI may enter a “wet reckless” plea bargain. This type of plea agreement allows the driver to plead guilty to reckless driving, which is a lesser charge. As part of this agreement, the driver must acknowledge that they consumed drugs or alcohol.

What Are the Penalties for a DUI in California?

The penalties for a DUI in California vary depending on the circumstances of the offense and the offender's prior criminal record. 

In most cases, DUIs in California are misdemeanors. For a first-time offense, penalties may include the following:

  • Up to six months in jail

  • Fines ranging from $390 to $1,000

  • License suspension for up to six months

  • Completion of a DUI education program

  • Installation of an ignition interlock device (IID)

Subsequent offenses may result in increased fines, longer jail time, and longer license suspensions. If a DUI results in injury or death to another person, the offender may face felony charges and significantly harsher penalties. You may also face a penalty if you have a prior felony DUI conviction or you have three DUI convictions within the previous ten years.

Felony DUIs can carry much harsher penalties, including:

  • Up to three years in state prison

  • A fine of up to $5,000

  • Up to 5 years of driver’s license suspension

  • Completion of a DUI education program

Drivers should also keep in mind that their insurance rates will substantially increase if they are charged with a DUI.

California Dram Shop Liability Insurance Requirements

Dram shop liability laws allow victims of drunk driving crashes to recover damages from liquor vendors and hold them accountable for serving alcohol to intoxicated patrons that go on to cause an accident.

In states with dram shop liability laws, victims of drunk driving accidents can file a third-party civil claim against the bartender or establishment that overserved the drunk driver. These states also often require establishments that serve alcohol to have insurance to cover damages in such cases.

California, however, does not have such a law and does not allow victims of drunk driving crashes to sue the establishment that served the alcohol. The state’s civil code states that the liability falls solely on the driver for consuming alcohol and causing an accident. 

The only exception to this rule is in cases that involve a person or an establishment serving alcohol to a person that they know is under the age of 21. In these situations, accident victims may have grounds to serve the establishment.

How Much Can Someone Sue For a Drunk Driving Injury in California?

If you were injured in a California DUI accident, you might wonder how much compensation you are entitled to. 

California allows injured parties to recover economic and noneconomic damages.

Economic damages include things like medical bills, lost income, property damage, loss of future wages, and funeral costs. In a lawsuit, you may need to provide evidence of these damages to support your claims, so be sure to keep any receipts from expenses you incur after an accident.

Noneconomic damages are things that cause damage but don’t have a clear monetary value. This can include pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of companionship. These damages are more subjective, making them difficult to prove.

Some states cap the amount of noneconomic damages victims can recover in personal injury lawsuits. A personal injury attorney can help you calculate your noneconomic damages and give you a better idea of how much you may be able to recover in a lawsuit or settlement.

California law also allows you to sue for punitive damages after a drunk driving accident. Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants who exhibit dangerous conduct, like willfully driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Given that the total award you can sue for varies from case to case, it’s important to work with an attorney to evaluate the extent of your damages. With that in mind, settlements for drunk driving accidents in California are often between $50,000 and $100,000. 

The Statute of Limitations in California

If you plan to sue for damages after being injured in a DUI accident, it is important to be aware of the statute of limitations in California. The statute of limitations is the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit after the accident occurred. In California, the statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits is two years from the date of the accident.

It is important to note that if you miss the deadline for filing a lawsuit, you may lose your right to seek compensation for your injuries. Accident victims must act quickly and consult with an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible after the accident to ensure their rights are protected.

Resources for Folks Injured by an Impaired Driver in California

If you or a loved one has been injured in a DUI accident in California, several resources are available to help you navigate the legal process and seek compensation for your injuries.

California Driver’s Handbook

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offers the California Driver’s Handbook on its website.

Accident victims can use this resource to learn more about driving laws in California, and more specifically, laws relating to alcohol and drugs. This information can be helpful to victims who are interested in pursuing a lawsuit after being injured in an accident. 


Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) provides support and resources for victims of drunk driving accidents and their families.

MADD offers educational resources to help people better understand DUI laws around the country. MADD also provides services to victims of drunk driving accidents, including emotional support, assistance navigating the criminal and civil justice systems, referral services, and more.


California Office of Traffic Safety

The California Office of Traffic Safety provides information, statistics, and resources related to driving in California.

Individuals who have been injured by an impaired driver can visit the OTS website to learn more about DUI laws, including laws related to drug-impaired driving.


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