Penalties for Commercial Drivers Charged With a 1st Time DUI

California DUI laws are tough on all drivers. However, individuals with a commercial driver’s license are held to a higher standard when facing drunk driving charges. While there may be good reasons for a higher standard for commercial DUI in California, the results of a DUI conviction can be devastating for a commercial driver. 

Drunk driving laws for commercial drivers can result in severe criminal penalties for a first-time DUI in California. However, understanding DUI laws for commercial drivers and your legal rights after a DUI arrest could help you avoid a DUI conviction. 

What is a Commercial Driver’s License?

What is commercial driving? Commercial driving is operating a commercial vehicle for business or private use. In most cases, a person driving a commercial vehicle is doing so as part of their job.

A commercial driver’s license (CDL) is required to operate certain vehicles. A Class B license allows you to drive large trucks which weigh more than 26,000 pounds. These trucks include 18-wheelers, tractor-trailers, and big rigs. 

A Class C commercial driver’s license allows you to operate smaller commercial vehicles, such as:

  • A California school bus
  • Passenger vehicles with more than ten persons
  • A vehicle that carries hazardous substances
  • Tank vehicles
  • Double trailers 
  • Some farm vehicles

Recreational vehicles and agricultural vehicles operated by someone who is not required to have a California driver’s license are not included in the definition of commercial vehicle.

What is the Legal Limit for DUI in California?

California has a legal BAC limit of .08 for drivers. Blood alcohol content (BAC) is the level of alcohol in a person’s system. It is measured by the weight of alcohol in a specific volume of blood. All 50 states have a legal limit of .08 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood. In Utah, the BAC limit is .05 grams per deciliter of blood.

The reason for the legal BAC limit is because once a person’s blood alcohol content reaches a certain level the person’s ability to operate a vehicle may be impaired. Therefore, the risk of a DUI accident increases significantly. According to the NHTSA, even small amounts of alcohol can have a negative impact on driving ability. 

A person’s blood alcohol content is measured by using a DUI breathalyzer. BAC may also be measured by using a DUI blood test or urine analysis. 

However, there is a lower BAC limit for commercial drivers. 

What is the BAC Limit for Commercial Drivers in California?

As stated above, commercial drivers (CDL drivers) are held to a higher standard for drunk driving. The California BAC limit for a CDL driver is .04 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood. [California Vehicle Code §23152(d)] The lower BAC level only applies when the person is operating a commercial vehicle. If the person is driving a non-commercial vehicle, the standard BAC limit of .08 applies. 

CDL drivers have a lower BAC because of the risk of catastrophic accidents in an accident. Commercial vehicles are much larger and heavier than passenger vehicles. Therefore, traffic accidents involving commercial vehicles tend to result in catastrophic injuries and fatalities. For that reason, federal and California DUI laws set lower BAC limits for truck drivers and commercial drivers to decrease the risk of a drunk driving accident. 

Being Charged with DUI Offenses as a Commercial Driver

Police officers may make a DUI arrest if a driver operates a commercial vehicle under the influence of any alcoholic beverage. Being “under the influence” means that the person’s physical or mental abilities are impaired. The impairment presents the person from operating a vehicle with the same level of care and caution that a sober person would use under similar circumstances. [California Criminal Jury Instructions 2110]

A driver also faces a DUI charge if their breathalyzer levels or BAC chemical tests are above .04 while operating a commercial vehicle. The police officer does not need proof that the driver was impaired because they were driving under the influence of alcohol. Driving with a BAC above the legal limit is sufficient to charge a commercial driver with a DUI offense. 

Can a Commercial Driver Be Charged with DUI for Having Drugs in Their System?

Yes, buzzed driving is drunk driving. A driver may be charged with DUI if they operate a vehicle under the influence of any drug or the influence of drugs and alcohol. The Vehicle Code states that it is unlawful for a person to operate a vehicle under the influence of any drug. Drugged driving carries the same criminal penalties for DUI of alcohol. 

What Are the Criminal Penalties for Commercial DUI in California?

The criminal penalties for a commercial DUI depend on your prior DUI record, whether the DUI involved injury to another person, and other factors. Generally, the penalties for your first DUI conviction include jail time, fines, and suspension of driving privileges. 

First time DUI convictions for commercial drivers when no one was injured result in penalties including:

  • Up to six months in jail
  • A DUI fine in California of up to $1,000
  • Penalty assessments totaling $1,500 to $2,000
  • DUI probation (summary probation) of three to five years
  • Attendance at DUI school for three months (court-approved alcohol and drug education program)
  • Suspension of driving privileges for one year or longer

The judge may impose all or some of the above criminal penalties for a first-time commercial DUI conviction. Commercial drivers need to understand that a second DUI conviction results in the permanent suspension of their commercial driver’s license. They cannot operate a commercial vehicle for the rest of their life. [California Vehicle Code §15302]

The criminal penalties for a first-time DUI while driving a commercial vehicle increase significantly if someone is injured. Depending on the circumstances, a DUI with injury could be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Potential penalties for a first-time commercial DUI with injuries include: 

  • Fines of up to $5,000
  • Informal probation for three to five years
  • Suspended driver’s license for up to three years for a misdemeanor and up to five years for a felony
  • Up to one year in county jail (felony convictions result in time in a California state prison)
  • Participation in a court-approved alcohol or drug education program for up to 30 months
  • Restitution payments to the injured victims 
  • Habitual Traffic Offender status for a felony conviction 

DUI convictions that include great bodily injury to another party count as a strike under California’s Three Strikes law. After three “strikes,” a person could face up to life in prison. A second strike doubles the prison sentence. 

Refusing to Take a Chemical DUI Test or Breathalyzer in California

Commercial drivers who refuse to take breathalyzers or chemical DUI tests face additional jail time for a conviction and have their driver’s licenses automatically suspended. 

The penalties for a chemical test refusal are separate from the penalties for a DUI conviction. Therefore, you could beat the DUI charge, but your driver’s license would still be suspended if you refused a DUI breath test or chemical test. 

Drivers Cannot Operate a Commercial Vehicle During Their Suspension 

If your commercial DUI case results in suspension of driving privileges, you cannot obtain a restricted license to operate a commercial vehicle during the suspension period. However, you could apply for restricted driving privileges for a Class C or Class M driver’s license. Under these classes, a restricted driver’s license would allow you to drive a non-commercial vehicle to and from work. You could also seek medical attention for a serious health problem or take a minor dependent to school if no school bus or public transportation is available. 

Some individuals opt to have a DUI interlock device installed. The driver may then drive anywhere with a restricted driver’s license.

Fighting a First-Time Commercial DUI Charge in California 

Driving under the influence is a serious criminal offense for any person. However, a person holding a CDL could lose their job and their means of earning a living if they are convicted of DUI. Therefore, it is wise to seek legal advice from an experienced DUI lawyer as soon as possible. 

Even though the evidence against you may seem overwhelming, there could be several criminal defenses to a CLD DUI charge. 

For example, you could refute the results of a DUI chemical test or breathalyzer. Chemical DUI tests and breathalyzers are not always accurate. The readings could be inflated if the driver has certain medical conditions or the machines were not maintained or calibrated correctly. In addition, a judge could throw out the BAC results if the police officers or lab did not follow the procedures for conducting these tests.

Another potential DUI defense may include violations of your civil rights, such as making a traffic stop without probable cause or failing to inform you of your Miranda rights. An experienced DUI lawyer examines each aspect of your DUI case to determine what defenses are available based on the circumstances and evidence. 

Police officers and prosecutors do not tell you when they make mistakes or have a weak case. They only want a conviction or guilty plea. The best way to protect your rights and best interests is to speak with a DUI attorney before talking to the police or pleading guilty to a DUI charge.

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