Lowering Blood Alcohol Levels to .05%?

There is a movement now to lower the level by which you can be convicted of drunk driving from .08% to .05%.

As a criminal defense attorney who handles a lot of DUI cases, I certainly have opinions on this.

The problem is that my opinion has a lot of “ifs.”gavel

First, let me explain the law. In Pennsylvania (where I practice), you can be driving perfectly fine, no problems whatsoever, but if you have more than .08% in your system, you can be found guilty of drunk driving. It’s a “per se” law which means that simply by having that much in your system you are guilty even if it did not affect your driving. I assume every other state is the same.

Obviously, alcohol affects everyone differently. One person can be drunk from two beers while another needs six, based on the size of the person and other factors.

So that law kind of bugs me, because you’re guilty even if the point of the law (to prevent drunk drivers) is not technically served.

On the other hand, people should not be driving after they’ve had a drink. Come on, why try to guess if you’ve had enough? Just don’t drink if you know you’ll be driving. (I’ve never been much of a drinker, but I’ve seen so many lives ruined from drunk driving that I don’t even have a sip if I know I am driving.)

So when I see studies showing that lowering the amount to .05% (which is the limit in a hundred other countries) results in less accidents, it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t lower it.

The problem is this: In America, thanks to MADD and groups like that, the penalties for drunk driving are ridiculously harsh. Most states have a mandatory jail sentence for a first offense. (There’s not even a mandatory jail sentence for aggravated assault.) For a third offense in Pennsylvania, you could do a mandatory year in jail, even if your driving was perfectly fine, just because your BAC level was too high. A year! When I say people’s lives have been ruined because of drunk driving, I’m not just talking about the victims of accidents; most of the time, there is no accident.

I’d be willing to bet that in those countries that have reduced the rate to .05%, the penalties are nowhere near what we have. Penalties such as points on your license, a loss of license, and the requirement that you take alcohol classes (which we have now) may be sufficient to punish people without throwing them in jail, too.

So I may surprise people when I say that I am not necessarily against lowering the rate (and no, I’m not saying this so I can get more clients), but I would only support it if we got rid of mandatory prison sentences. (This is, in some way, a separate issue worthy of another blog post — one of the reasons the US has more prisoners than any other country is because instead of treating addicts, we imprison them.)