The Differences and Similarities Between Criminal and Civil Penalties in a DUI

Last updated on: September 20, 2022

Driving under the influence is a serious offense because of the tragic consequences it can have. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drunk driving related accidents accounted for over 10,000 deaths on the road this past year. Because of harrowing statistics like these, someone who drives under the influence and injures another can expect to face both criminal and civil consequences for their actions.

If you or a loved one has been injured by a drunk driver, contact Zinda Law Group today for a free case consultation.

Is a DUI Criminal or Civil Law?

A DUI can be both a civil and a criminal offense. Criminal offenses are violations of law. In all states, the operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated is a crime under the law, and the state enforces the punishment of those who break the law through criminal cases.

However, when a DUI leads to the injury of someone else, that person has the option to file a lawsuit against the drunk driver in civil court to receive compensation for their injuries. If no one is injured in a DUI case, there will be no civil case because there is no injured party to bring a lawsuit. 

However, there will be a criminal case, because even if no harm was done to another individual, the law was still broken.

Criminal DUI Cases

In a criminal DUI case, the defendant (the person arrested for a DUI) has charges filed against them by the state, not by any private individual. A prosecutor for the state will argue the case against the defendant in court if the case goes to trial. In a DUI case, the prosecutor will have to prove each element of a DUI. The elements are threefold: the defendant operated a vehicle, that vehicle was a motor vehicle, and the defendant was under the influence at the time he operated the motor vehicle. 

In a criminal case, the prosecution has a duty to prove each of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a highest burden of proof that can be required under law because if the defendant is found guilty of a DUI they could lose their freedom in the form of jail time, be forced to pay significant fines, and be prohibited from driving for some time. 

In addition, conviction of a DUI in criminal court can be used as evidence in a civil trial, reducing the amount of evidence a plaintiff has to present when demonstrating negligence in a personal injury lawsuit.

Civil Drunk Driving Lawsuits

Civil drunk driving lawsuits are not filed by the state, they are filed by the individual harmed by the defendant’s DUI (or that individual’s family members). Unlike a DUI, where the case is likely to be pursued by the state no matter what, it is up to the injured person whether they want to file a claim and pursue their case or not. Generally, you will have to hire your own lawyer if you want to pursue a civil drunk driving lawsuit against someone else.

If the defendant is found liable in a civil drunk driving lawsuit, they will not face any jail time. They will have to pay damages to the injured plaintiff, which can include medical expenses, property repairs, emotional suffering, or even punitive damages, which do not compensate a victim for a specific wrong but are instead imposed by the court specifically to increase the severity of the penalty.

However, because there is no possibility of going to jail in a civil lawsuit, the burden of proof is not as high as it is in a criminal case. The burden of proof in a civil lawsuit is the preponderance of the evidence, which means that it must be more likely than not that the defendant was liable. This is less stringent a burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt, because the plaintiff’s lawyer does not have to demonstrate that their argument is the only explanation that could reasonably be expected; they only have to prove that their argument is more likely to be true than it is not.

In a civil lawsuit, one problem that can sometimes come up is a defendant being judgment-proof. Unlike a criminal case, which could involve jail time, a civil case generally only involves payment of damages. However, if the defendant does not have the money to pay for their damages, it can be difficult for the plaintiff to recover anything, even when the plaintiff receives a verdict in their favor.

Experienced lawyers have some strategies for how to avoid receiving a verdict unlikely to yield compensation for their clients. In many cases, a defendant’s insurance will be able to provide damages. In other cases, a lawyer may choose to go after a party other than the individual who caused the accident, such as the bar that sold the drunk driver his alcohol, or the manufacturer that created the defective product. Pursuing a lawsuit against a commercial entity instead of an individual is a better option for avoiding a judgment-proof defendant.

Is a DUI a criminal offense in the United States?

A DUI is a criminal offense in the United States. In most states, the first and sometimes second conviction of driving under the influence is a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor is a criminal act classified as less serious than the more serious felony charge, but a misdemeanor is still likely to remain on your criminal record forever.

A felony is the more serious of the two criminal charges. A third DUI is usually a felony, since felonies are more serious, they carry more serious penalties. Someone convicted of a first or second DUI might not face any jail time, or only a short period of incarceration, but someone with a felony DUI is likely to face a year or more of jail time, and thousands of dollars in fines. A DUI with minors in the vehicle or that causes injury or death may also be classified as a felony

State differences

Some states have different approaches to DUI laws. One discrepancy is the blood alcohol limit to qualify for a DUI or for an enhanced penalty (which occurs when the driver is severely intoxicated and can increase severity of the charges). In most states, a driver qualifies as intoxicated if his BAC is .08 or higher (although he can also be declared intoxicated at a lower BAC level), but in Utah the standard is .05. In most states the BAC to cause the enhanced penalty is .15, but can be as high as .20 in Idaho and Massachusetts, and as low as .10 in New Jersey.

Contact Zinda Law Group Today

A DUI is a crime, but criminal charges will not do anything to help an individual who has been injured by a drunk driver. In order to receive compensation and justice, the injured party should obtain a lawyer and file a personal injury law claim. 

At Zinda Law Group, our experienced drunk driving injury lawyers have obtained compensation for numerous victims of drunk driving—call Zinda Law Group at 888-541-6283. You can schedule a free case evaluation with one of our experienced attorneys today.