The Legal Consequences of Alcohol Misuse

6 min read · 10 sections
A combination of federal, state, and local laws define the way that alcohol can be consumed, sold, and manufactured as well as how society responds to alcohol-related problems.1
What you will learn:
The history of the alcohol legalization and legislation in the United States
The laws surrounding alcohol use in the workplace
The legal consequences of an alcohol use disorder

A Short History of Alcohol and the Law

Before the American Revolution, heavy drinking was perceived as normal by most colonists. However, drunkenness was perceived as a personal failing, a lack of willpower, or even a sin. After the American Revolution, American thought pivoted on the idea of alcohol consumption, and people began seeing alcohol as an addictive and poisonous drug.

Alcohol has been legal for nearly a century. However, during World War I, speculation rose amongst the American population on how the nation ought to be using their wheat. This lead to arguably one of the most radical attempts by the United States government to control the consumption of alcohol in the United States. In 1933, the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution brought about prohibition. This amendment banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Eventually, the 21st Amendment ended prohibition and caused the public to question the government’s attempts at legislating the public’s morality.2

Throughout American history, the legal drinking age has changed—mostly based political agendas or on scientific discoveries playing critical roles in developing effective policies to protect the public. After prohibition, the legal drinking age teetered around 21. In the 1970s, 29 states lowered their drinking age to 18, 19, or 20 because of increased turnout in voting for this age group. However, in 1985, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, returning the minimum legal purchasing and consumption age to 21.3,4

What Does the Law Say About Alcohol Consumption at Work?

For the most part, it is not illegal to have a drink at your workplace unless you are driving or operating machinery. However, different workplaces have different policies and procedures when it comes to workplace alcohol consumption. Federal workers, according to the Drug-Free Workplace Act, cannot consume drugs or alcohol in their workplace as a condition for their employer receiving a grant or contract from the U.S. government.5,6

Additionally, in some states, employees of bars, clubs, and restaurants cannot drink while working.7

Why Is Alcohol Legal and Some Drugs Are Not?

All substances—alcohol or drugs—present a risk for harm to society. Despite the fact that alcohol is arguably the most harmful drug to society, it is still legal. The reason for this is still unclear but seems to revolve around history and legislation.8

Alcohol-Related Crimes

Alcohol has been a factor in violent crimes worldwide. Alcohol alters an individual’s mental state, including emotional processing and rational thinking, which can make some individuals’ behaviors unpredictable and even dangerous. Studies have linked alcohol use to robberies, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and homicides. Research indicates that in the United States, for instance, alcohol has been a factor in 40% of the reported domestic violence cases. Additionally, it has been found that the intensity and severity of the violence is greater when the perpetrator is intoxicated compared to when they are not.9

Homicides are also more likely to involve alcohol than less serious crimes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ADRI) application estimated that between 2015 and 2019, there were 8,462 homicides annually that were attributed to excessive alcohol use (i.e. victims had a BAC of greater than .10%).10

Furthermore, alcohol misuse can impair judgement and increase the likelihood that an individual participates in risky, illegal activities such as driving under the influence.

Alcohol Misuse and DUIs

Over 10,000 people die every year due to drinking-and-driving accidents, but that’s not the only consequence that comes with driving under the influence (DUI). Legal consequences can include:11

  • Charges that range from misdemeanors and felonies.
  • Revocation of driver’s license.
  • Fines.
  • Jail time.
  • Court-ordered alcohol addiction treatment.

If the DUI results in vehicular homicide, consequences can include:12

  • Jail time, which varies greatly by state.
  • Fines.
  • Potential loss of employment in certain fields.
  • Potential loss of professional licensing in certain fields.
  • Potential loss of custody rights surrounding children.

Driving while under the influence of alcohol can lead to legal consequences in the form of a DUI, fines, court-ordered treatment, jail time, job loss and more. One of the greatest hazards of drinking is that one’s intention, such as simply having a good time, can get lost once the intoxicating effects take hold. One of the most common legal problems associated with drinking is a DUI (driving under the influence) arrest. In some jurisdictions, the term used may be driving while intoxicated (DWI) or operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OWI).

DUI Laws

Every state imposes penalties for drivers who operate vehicles while under the influence. Some states consider impaired driving a misdemeanor criminal offense while others do not classify it as a crime at all. Drinking and driving laws are set by individual states, and consequently, penalties vary by jurisdiction. Driving under the influence can lead to fatalities, the most tragic unintended consequence of drinking and driving. Every day in the United States, approximately 37 people die in drunk-driving car accidents. In 2021, 13,384 people died in alcohol-related driving traffic deaths—a 14% increase from 2020.11

To illuminate the potential consequences, consider, as an example, California’s minimum DUI penalties for a first conviction (absent bodily injury or death), which may include:13

  • Jail time. Convicted individuals may face up to 48 hours in jail.
  • Loss of a driver’s license. An individual who is arrested for a DUI loses their driver’s license for 4 months if they submit to a chemical test; 1 year if they do not.
  • Fines. In California, you will have to pay a $125 reissue fee to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to get your driver’s license back. You will also pay other fines and fees, which can cost over $1,000, plus there may be an increase on your auto insurance policy.
  • Completion of a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Program. The purpose of the state-licensed DUI program is to reduce the number of repeat DUIs and allow participants to address problems related to their alcohol or drug use.

Penalties become more severe with repeat offenses. For instance, in California, a second DUI arrest (without injury) within 10 years of the first may result in a 1-year license suspension for individuals who submit to a chemical test; 2 years for those who do not.13

States may also require repeat DUI offenders to install an ignition interlock device in their cars for a specified amount of time.14 Wired to the car’s ignition, the device requires the driver to provide a breath sample to start the engine. If the device detects alcohol, the engine won’t start. Additionally, as you drive, you will also have to periodically provide breath samples to ensure the continued absence of alcohol. Generally, a court orders the installation of the device.14

When Alcohol Use Leads to Jail or Prison

A first DUI offense may or may not carry jail time, depending on the jurisdiction. A second DUI offense or beyond will likely carry a jail sentence, which will generally increase with each subsequent conviction. Some jurisdictions may have a mandatory jail sentence, which means the presiding judge must impose it. In other jurisdictions, a jail sentence will be left to the judge’s reasonable discretion.

States that mandate jail time vary by jurisdiction and offense. Examples include the following:15-18

  • In Texas, first offenders convicted of a DUI spend a mandatory 3 days in jail and a maximum of 180 days. A second offense means the individual gets somewhere between 1 month and 1 year in prison. And a third DUI conviction carries with it a sentence of 2-10 years in jail.
  • In Arizona, first offenders, convicted of a DUI, are jailed for no less than 10 days. If the individual has a BAC of .15% or higher, the jail time increases to no less than 30 days. Second-time offenders and subsequent convictions carry with it a sentence of no less than 90 days of jail time; 120 days if the BAC is .15% or higher.
  • In Tennessee, first-time DUI offenders receive a minimum of 48 hours in jail but not more than 11 months, 29 days. If the individual’s BAC is .20% or greater, the minimum jail time is 7 days. Individuals convicted of a second DUI receive at least 45 days in jail but not more than 11 months, 29 days. Individuals convicted of a third DUI receive a minimum of 120 days in jail but still no more than 11 months, 29 days.
  • In Maryland, individuals convicted of a DUI face up to 1 year in jail for a first offense and up to 2 years in jail for a second offense.

Vehicular manslaughter (an individual dies as a result of the car accident) or vehicular assault (injury but no death) both bring more severe consequences. The sentencing laws for vehicular manslaughter vary considerably from state to state, and case-specific facts are usually relevant to the length of incarceration. For instance, in California, a person convicted of vehicular manslaughter may serve anywhere from 0 to 10 years in prison. California recognizes Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated as a punishable offense requiring incarceration in a state prison for 4, 6, or 10 years. Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated in California carries an imprisonment sentence in a county jail of no more than 1 year or in a state prison for 16, 24, or 48 months.12

DUI and Loss of Employment

Persons convicted of a DUI or another alcohol-involved crime, such as battery, may face the risk of job loss, depending on the type of position held and terms of employment. In many cases, the employer has the right to terminate employment. It is important to keep in mind that civil rights and employment laws protect Americans from employer practices, such as unfair bias, but employment laws are not generally a guarantee of the right to work or keep a job. In the eyes of the law, work is generally seen as a contractual relationship (even if there is no paper contract in existence) between an employer and employee. Employees who have an actual contract in place with their employer are best advised to review the contract to learn if there is a mandatory firing clause. It is more likely that if there is such a clause, the firing will happen as a result of a conviction and not just an arrest.

Certain transportation jobs, such as commercial vehicle drivers, taxi drivers, and aircraft pilots may risk job loss if convicted of an alcohol-related offense, especially a DUI. If the DUI occurs while on the job, it can also be construed as gross misconduct, and the employee may lose the right to state unemployment insurance. As these individuals hold commercial driving licenses, the issuing agency may initiate an administrative process (separate from the criminal process) to revoke the individual’s commercial license. The loss of the license extends beyond the specific job and, in effect, revokes the privilege of being employed anywhere that the commercial license is required—at least temporarily. In some cases, the individual may have an opportunity to regain the license by attending rehab and meeting other requirements.

Professionals, such as attorneys, doctors, and certified public accountants are members of associations that issue licenses to practice. In the event of a DUI conviction, or other alcohol-related conviction, the license-issuing agency has the right to revoke the professional member’s license. In this way, a DUI conviction can cause people to not only lose their specific jobs, but also their livelihoods—at least temporarily. Although agencies that issue professional licenses may work with the professional member to reinstate the license, the agency has the discretion to permanently revoke the license. In some cases, a DUI or alcohol-related conviction can reflect poorly on one’s character and lead to job loss for this reason. For instance, high school teachers are held to a high professional standard because they are role models for youth. A school district could decide to immediately terminate convicted teachers or at least not renew their teaching contracts. There can also be fallout publicly. In some communities, especially small ones, word can spread quickly that a teacher or other respected professional in the community has been arrested or convicted for an alcohol-related offense.

DUI and Loss of Child Custody

Individuals, who are convicted of a DUI, may jeopardize their parental rights. In most jurisdictions, when a custodial parent is convicted for a DUI, the noncustodial parent will have a right to a custody hearing. In addition to the DUI conviction, the judge may entertain other facts about the custodial parent, such as the parent’s social life and social habits, to determine if ongoing custody of the children is appropriate. The presiding judge will likely give extra weight to certain facts, such as if the children were in the car when the custodial parent was arrested for the DUI.

If the custodial parent opposes the noncustodial parent’s challenges, the court process can be expensive, lengthy, and stressful. During DUI proceedings, the court may learn facts about the custodial parent that result in a referral to the local child protection agency. If the children were present at the time of the intoxicated driving, the DUI charge may escalate to aggravated DUI, and there may be additional charges of child endangerment, child abuse, and/or child cruelty.

Even if children were not present, DUI proceedings can trigger the local child protective services agency to investigate the arrested person’s parental fitness. In general, child protective services investigates any reasonable allegation of child abuse or neglect. If a DUI court makes a referral to child protective services, the agency assesses the potential risks to the children and may remove them from the parental home. In other instances, the agency may open a case and conduct an ongoing investigation until it makes a determination as to the welfare of the children.

It is important to note that the court’s referral of the custodial parent to an outpatient or inpatient alcohol treatment center does not necessarily result in the children being removed, provided the parent can make adequate arrangements for their care.

The goal of child protective services agency is to keep families together, and social workers will generally work with custodial parents to ensure this can happen, provided the children are safe.

DUI Classes

DUI classes are based largely on the premise that drivers who know better drive better. A judge may order a person convicted of a DUI to attend DUI classes as part of an agreement to reduce the time of the driver’s license suspension or as a condition of probation. In some states, even if the judge does not order DUI education classes, the DMV may require them. States commonly require even first-time offenders to complete DUI education before their licenses can be reinstated. Failure to complete DUI education programs may result in the loss of the license as well as additional penalties.

The time requirements and intensity of the DUI education programs depend on factors such as the severity of the case (such as the BAC level at the time of arrest) and age of the convicted driver (whether over or under 21 years of age).

Court-Ordered Alcohol Treatment

As part of the DUI court proceedings, the defendant driver will be required to undergo an alcohol use assessment with a qualified court-appointed counselor. The counselor reviews the court’s records on the case and provides the convicted driver with a thorough screening process in order to make the appropriate treatment recommendation.19

The counselor considers various factors, including:

  • The number of DUI or alcohol-related convictions the individual has on their record.
  • Any aggravating factors, such as the presence of children in the vehicle at the time of the arrest.
  • The individual’s BAC level at the time of arrest.
  • The individual’s history of alcohol or drug use treatment.
  • Whether other drugs were present.
  • Whether the individual has any co-occurring mental health disorders.

The court, based in part on the counselor’s recommendations, can refer the convicted driver to a host of different types of programs, ranging from outpatient programs to inpatient treatment.

While a court may order a person to a structured rehab program for a DUI, they may also issue a referral to local community services, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Where available, courts may require convicted drivers to attend presentations by injured survivors of DUI accidents or loved ones of individuals who died as a result of a DUI crash. (These presentations are sometimes referred to as victim impact panels.) In addition to treatment, courts may place the convicted driver on probation.

If you believe you or someone you love may be struggling with an alcohol use disorder or other addiction, call our alcohol helpline today at . You can speak to one of our knowledgeable admissions navigators at American Addiction Centers (AAC) to understand treatment options, get answers to your questions, and help you get on the road to lasting recovery.

Take Our Alcohol Addiction Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute alcohol addiction self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with alcohol misuse. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of an alcohol use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.

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