Your Harrisburg DUI Case: The Basics

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

From the "Hop Hog" to their "Strawberry Wheat," the Lancaster Brewing Company has a beer for everyone. Or in your case, about five beers. There was just too much variety, you had to taste them all. And now you head west back into town on 83, trying to steady your vehicle to the best of your ability. You're feeling good as you pass over the Susquehanna, but just past the 581 interchange red and blue flashes light up your rearview mirror. How should you act? What should you say? Should you refuse the chemical test? Being pulled over for a DUI is one of the scariest and most confusing experiences a driver will have, so FindLaw has created this guide to typical Harrisburg DUI cases.

The Traffic Stop

Your DUI case begins with the initial traffic stop. During the Field Sobriety Test, the officer will look for signs of intoxication and ask you to perform simple tasks of coordination. If you fail this test, you will likely be asked to submit to a breathalyzer test. If the test results indicate that your Blood Alcohol Content, or "BAC," is above the legal limit, or if you refuse to submit to the test, the officer can arrest you on the spot.

Implied Consent

Pennsylvania's "implied consent" law requires all drivers to take a blood, breath, or urine test if once arrested for a DUI for the purpose of determining your BAC (section 1547 in the link). The test must be taken within two hours of driving, but if the officer asks you to take a breath test he has to observe you for twenty minutes first.

If you refuse the test you face an automatic one year license suspension, which increased to 18 months with two or more prior refusals. Significantly, refusing the test does not preclude a DUI conviction. However, the officer cannot physically force you to take the test unless you were driving on a license that was already suspended because of an alcohol-related offense, or if you were involved in an accident where someone was seriously injured or killed.

Zip Your Lips

The single most important thing to remember during your DUI stop is to shut your mouth. Be polite and cooperate with the police, but defense attorneys typically advise their clients against volunteering information. Specifically, don't admit to drinking any alcohol whatsoever; the prosecutor will tell the jury that you "confessed" to drinking and driving, even if you only admit to drinking "a couple beers." You should also avoid informing the officer that you are driving home from a bar.

The Fourth Amendment

The exact circumstances of the traffic stop are critical for your DUI defense strategy. A common tactic for contending DUI charges is not persuading the jury that you are innocent, but instead challenging the constitutionality of the search or seizure. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment limits when the police may detain you; they need to have a reasonable suspicion that you are committing a criminal offense, such as a traffic law violation, to begin the investigative detention, and they must have probable cause that you were driving under the influence to arrest you. Any evidence gathered in violation of your constitutional guarantees will be excluded from court, which can be accomplished with a motion to suppress evidence. Best case scenario, if the initial stop wasn't supported by reasonable suspicion all the evidence will be suppressed and your case will be thrown out of court.

Driving Under the Influence

In 2003 Pennsylvania lowered the legal BAC limit from 0.10% to 0.08% to match the rest of the nation and ramped up the penalties. The law now divides DUI offenders into three categories, sorted by their level of intoxication:

  • General Impairment: 0.08% to .099% BAC
  • High BAC: 0.10% to .159% BAC
  • Highest BAC: 0.16% and higher

However, you should note that minors, commercial drivers, school vehicle or bus drivers, and offenders involved in an accident that injures someone or causes property damage may be subject to the high BAC penalties even if their BAC is not in the high category. Moreover, offenders who refuse breath or chemical testing may be subject to the highest BAC penalties.

Going to Court

If you decide to challenge the DUI, you will most likely attend court at the Dauphin County Courthouse located at 101 Market St. Significantly, pleading down to a lesser charge of "wet reckless" is prohibited under Pennsylvania law. Trial can be a nightmare of technicalities, so consider scheduling a free consultation with an experienced defense attorneys. Lawyers in this field typically work on a flat fee basis, which means they won't rip you off by racking up billable hours.

Penalties

The Pennsylvania penalties for DUI scale up depending on your level of intoxication, whether you were involved in an accident, and how many prior DUI conviction you've suffered. When determining prior DUI convictions, the judge will only consider offenses that have occurred within the past ten years (called the "lookback period"). The 2003 law places a heavy emphasis on alcohol treatment, and judges can order treatment whenever they feel that it is appropriate. Furthermore, for a second or more DUI the judge may order you to install and maintain an ignition interlock device.

For a first timer with a relatively low BAC, you can expect a $300 fine but no jail time. However, if you've had a prior you will face at least five days in jail and a larger fine. If your BAC is in the High or Highest category, first timers will face at least several days in jail. For a full list of this complicated DUI penalty schedule, check out the Pennsylvania DMV website's information on DUI law.

DUI cases can have serious consequences, whether it's a first time offense or not. You may wish to consult with a local DUI attorney for more information about your particular circumstances.

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