Drunk driving could cost $20,000

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Having just one more green beer or shot of Irish whiskey won’t cost you too much, right? Well, if that last dance with the bottle on St. Paddy’s Day leads to an unlucky DUI conviction, you’ll be paying for it for years to come.

And that’s only considering the potential financial cost of being ticketed for driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated, better known as DUI or DWI. It’ll take even longer to get past the staggering financial blow if you cause an accident — or the emotional devastation if your actions cause injuries or worse.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 134 fatal accidents on St. Patrick’s Day in 2008, the last year for which data are available, and 50 of those involved at least one driver who was legally drunk at the time of the crash. That means 37 percent of the drivers and motorcyclists involved in fatal crashes had a blood alcohol level of .08 or above.

One drink too many puts you at risk not only for an arrest, but also for fees, fines and costs that can run you thousands of dollars. While a DUI or DWI may be a misdemeanor charge in a number of jurisdictions, it’s a matter that most judges and district attorneys take very seriously. The financial toll of a conviction will play out for years to come, and in many states, that can add up to $20,000 before everything is over. This includes bail, fines, legal fees, increased auto insurance premiums, loss of work income, court-ordered alcohol education programs and more.

Of course, if you get fired from your job as a result of the arrest, that dollar figure would skyrocket.

Potential expenses from a DUI — first offense
You don’t even have to get convicted to start running up expenses on a DUI charge. But if you’re found guilty, a first offense could mean that last drink cost you dearly. While the amounts vary by location and specific circumstances, here are some of the expenses you may realize:
Fines. Court costs.
Attorney fees. Bail.
Loss of job. DUI “school.”
Temporary loss of income. Car towing, impounding.
Alternate transportation costs. Car ignition interlock device.
Periodic blood testing. Monthly monitoring fees.
Cost of incarceration. Increased auto insurance premiums.

The financial impact of a DUI arrest on any one person can vary greatly depending on many factors, such as driving record, jurisdiction, blood-alcohol level, attorney fees and fines, not to mention the specific circumstances of the incident and whether there was an accident or if anyone was injured.

The Texas Department of Transportation says a June 2006 survey in that state showed the total costs of a DWI arrest and conviction for a first-time offender with no accident involved would range from $9,000 to $24,000.

And while expenses can vary substantially by jurisdiction, in no city is a DUI charge cheap.

In 2000, when graduate student Kate S. was driving home from a party in Woodstock, Ga., she was involved in an accident. She was not found to be at fault for the mishap, but blood tests at the hospital later revealed she was over the legal alcohol limit and she was booked on a DUI charge. Some costs Kate had to pay included a $2,500 fine, approximately $3,000 in legal fees and insurance premiums that rose an additional $600 per year for the next five years.

“As part of my sentence, I had to go to what they call ‘DUI school,’ and one of the things we had to do was tally up how much it cost you. I came up with about $13,000 in all,” says Kate.

Donald Ramsell, an Illinois attorney, says legal fees can vary from as little as $2,500 to as high as $10,000, even for a first offender.

Ramsell says that many people are quickly arrested and charged with DUI regardless of whether proof exists.

A good attorney is needed, he says, to explore multiple areas of an alleged infraction, including driving behaviors, personal behaviors and the results of chemical tests. And while rarely cheap, a good attorney may help offset other costs.

Ramsell says fines for a first offender in Illinois are up to $2,500 along with “special penalties” costs that can run another $1,500. Mandatory DWI school can cost between $1,500 and $2,500, then there’s a suspension reinstatement fee of $250 to get a license back.

Ramsell says auto insurance could also increase by $5,000 to $10,000 over the next five years. A 2006 fact book published by the Illinois Secretary of State estimated the cost of a DUI conviction to be $14,660, but Ramsell says that could be much higher.

Steep costs

“It just keeps adding and adding. These are just your straight-up out-of-pocket expenses before you start to consider lost income. Some companies will fire you because their own insurance company will not allow someone with a DWI to work for them,” says Ramsell. The threat of lost income during incarceration or even losing a job altogether is a real possibility. If a job includes driving for a living, termination is almost guaranteed, but nowadays, many companies will fire convicted DUI offenders.

Lawrence Koplow, a Phoenix attorney, says his state not only socks DUI offenders with high fines, but they’re also billed for their own cost of incarceration that can run $165 for the first day and $60 each day thereafter. Fines in Arizona can run from $1,400 to $2,000, and a recent law requires “extreme” and “aggravated” DUI offenders, even first-timers, to have an interlock device installed on their vehicle. Similar to a Breathalyzer, the device prevents the vehicle from being started if the driver has a blood alcohol concentration that is too high. The cost of the device, which can run up to $200 to install and $80 per month, is also billed to the offender.

“A DUI is a tremendous financial burden. There are just so many costs that go along with it. A first-time offender here could be looking at $7,000 to $12,000,” says Koplow.

In order to educate drivers on the consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol, many jurisdictions publicize the total estimated costs of DUI convictions.

Erie County, N.Y., estimates a DUI conviction in their county to cost about $9,500; in Kentucky, it can run about $10,000; and according to the Texas Safety Network, a DUI in the Lone Star state can run almost $8,000. But if there’s a child younger than 15 years old in the car during the incident, you can face an additional $10,000 in fines, plus 180 days to two years in jail.

Finally, all of this assumes no property damage or personal injury resulted while the driver was under the influence. An offender’s insurance may not cover certain costs related to damages from an accident when blood alcohol content was over the limit. In Kate S.’s DUI conviction, she was also sued by a property owner for $1,200 in landscaping fees that her insurance did not cover.

“I never would have thought I would have gotten a DUI and I had no idea how much it cost. I’m your quintessential good girl, too. I didn’t have that much to drink either, just enough to put me over the limit,” says Kate. “It’s a real financial burden.”