On behalf of Jeffrey Engle at Shaffer & Engle Law Offices LLC

No one expects to be pulled over for an alcohol-related traffic offense. But you should still be aware of what to expect - and know that you have rights even if you test over the limit for alcohol. By reviewing the following information about DUI in Pennsylvania, you can learn what to do if you are ever pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving.

Increased enforcement of DUI and other offenses related to intoxicated driving has increased in recent years, and arrest were up four percent between 2008 and 2009. Simultaneously, DUI-related fatalities dropped over ten percent. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) make sure that the authorities take notice of these statistics, and the trend toward aggressive enforcement is not likely to go away.

Understand Your Rights and Keep Your Cool

If you find yourself caught up in a local DUI dragnet, you can expect several likely scenarios. Even if you feel that you were pulled over based on a pretext (such as being targeted for a faulty turn signal), you should be polite and cooperative with the law enforcement officer. But as in any criminal investigation, you have a right to remain silent. Even if you say that you "only had one beer," that information can be used against you and encourage further action by the officer. Do not volunteer information before consulting with your lawyer.

If the officer suspects intoxication, you may be asked to perform one of several field sobriety tests to test your balance, memory, coordination, and ability to follow instructions. Common tests include following an object with your eye, balance tests, the one-leg stand, the walk-and-turn test, reciting the alphabet, and the finger-to-nose test, but many other variations exist. Law enforcement uses field sobriety tests as a means to determine if further testing should be required. You are within your rights to refuse to submit to these tests.

Pennsylvania law recognizes the doctrine of implied consent, which means that all drivers are deemed by statute to have provided consent for Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) chemical tests that measure alcohol or controlled substance content in the blood via breath, blood or urine samples. The officer must have reasonable grounds to believe a person to have been driving while intoxicated. In Pennsylvania, you will be presumed intoxicated if you refuse a breath test or other chemical test, and the result will be automatic license suspension and a three-day jail sentence for a first offense.

The BAC necessary to justify a drunk driving charge in Pennsylvania varies based on the type of driver involved. Juvenile offenders can be charged after testing for as little as .02 percent. The limit is .04 percent for truckers, bus drivers and other commercial operators. For other adults, the threshold is .08 percent. Harsher penalties are triggered by a BAC of .16 percent or higher.

The Penalties You Want to Avoid

Section 3804 of the Crimes Code of Pennsylvania provides a three-tiered system of penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol:

  • A driver who has no prior offenses faces a minimum probation term of six months, a $300 fine and mandatory alcohol highway safety school.
  • For a second conviction, the driver faces five days of incarceration, a fine of up to $2,500 and highway safety school.
  • For any subsequent offenses, the driver will receive a minimum ten-day sentence, a fine of up to $5,000 and mandatory drug and alcohol treatment.

Penalties increase significantly if aggravating circumstances are involved, including higher rates of blood alcohol, commercial vehicles and school bus operation, or accidents involving bodily injury or death. Under the worst circumstances, you could face more than a year of imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Other consequences include license suspension, community service and victim impact panel attendance, as well as collateral effects such as skyrocketing insurance rates and a black mark on your reputation.

Knowing what to expect in advance is a good way to keep a minor misunderstanding from spiraling into a night in jail. But even if you find yourself charged with DUI, you should not despair. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can explain a variety of options, including fighting the charges by challenging the evidence or police procedures, as well as diversion programs such as Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD).