The Legal Consequences of Alcohol Use Disorders
A variety of federal, state, and local laws define the way that alcohol can be consumed, sold, and manufactured, as well as how people respond to alcohol-related problems.1 This page will cover the history of alcohol legalization and legislation in the United States, the laws surrounding alcohol use in the workplace, the potential legal consequences of an alcohol use disorder (AUD), and how to get treatment for an AUD.
A Short History of Alcohol and the Law
Before the American Revolution, heavy drinking was perceived as normal by most colonists. It was also in this society that drunkenness began to be seen 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 almost an entire 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 US. In 1933, the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution brought about Prohibition. This amendment banned the manufactured sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Eventually, the 21st Amendment ended the Prohibition, and caused the public to question the United State’s government’s attempts at legislating the public’s morality.2
The drinking age has changed throughout American history, as well, mostly based political agendas or on scientific discoveries playing critical roles in developing effective policies to protect the public. After the prohibition, the legal drinking age mostly teetered around 21. However, 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 Drinks 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, employees of taverns, clubs, and restaurants cannot drink while working in some states.7
Remember, drinking alcohol employees, even drinking legally, can still suffer professional consequences from consuming alcohol at work.
Why Is Alcohol Legal and Drugs Not?
All 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
What Are the Legal Consequences of Alcoholism?
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).According to DUI arrest research collected in 2014, the following is a sample of the number of DUI arrests made in the state indicated:9
- California: 214,828 in a general population of 37,691,912 residents
- Florida: 61,852 in a general population of 19,057,542 residents
- New York: 25,169 in a general population of 19,465,197 residents
- Wisconsin: 40,549 in a general population of 5,711,767 residents
- Texas: 90,066 in a general population of 25,674,681 residents
Drinking and driving laws are set by individual states, and consequently, penalties vary among the different jurisdictions. DUI can lead to fatalities, the most tragic unintended consequence of drinking and driving. According to research on DUI deaths, each year almost 11,000 people pass away due to drinking-and-driving-related accidents. The rate is on the decline, but mainly due to increased car safety measures and not a reduction in the prevalence of drinking and driving. Reports show that 33 percent of individuals arrested for DUI are repeat offenders.
To illuminate the potential consequences, consider as an example California’s minimum DUI penalties for a first conviction (absent bodily injury or death):
- Jail: Convicted individuals may face 48 hours in jail.
- Restricted license: Convicted individuals may have a 90-day restriction on their license that limits driving to necessary places only, such as from home to work and/or rehab. This restriction may come in addition to license revocation and other restrictions.
- Loss of driver’s license: The minimum is 30 days, which may then be followed by a five-month restriction on driving destinations.
- Fine: The fine may be an approximate total of $1,800 that represents $390, plus more than $1,000 in ordinary penalties and DUI-specific penalties.
- Alcohol treatment: In order to have full driving privileges reinstated, a convicted person must attend a minimum of three months in an alcohol treatment program. The program costs at least $500.
In addition, arrested drivers may have their cars impounded under state law. In most cases, only repeat offenders will have their cars impounded. Vehicle impoundment usually occurs through a separate administrative process and not as a penalty in the criminal court case. In general, a car can be retrieved after the payment of fines and administrative fees. After a DUI arrest, in some cases, the police may permit a sober passenger to drive the car to a safe place. However, a sober passenger will usually need a good reason for having allowed the intoxicated driver to take the wheel in the first place. Absent such a reason, the passenger may be arrested for reckless endangerment.
States may require people convicted of a DUI to install an ignition interlock in their cars.10 An ignition interlock device is a breathalyzer device attached to the car that is able to analyze the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC). The device can block the driver from starting the car if a BAC (of a predetermined limit) is detected. Across all states, a BAC of 0.08 or greater is considered intoxication for legal purposes, however, the ignition interlock device’s limit may be lower. States usually require the driver to pay for the installation and lease of the device. Installation can cost approximately $100, and monthly maintenance roughly ranges from $50-$100 but can be higher in some cases.
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Jail Time Vs. Prison (With State Examples)
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, with an increasing amount of time to serve with each 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.
If alcohol is related to another type of crime, such as battery, the governing criminal laws for the charge will determine the amount of jail time, if any.
Regarding DUI and minimum jail time sentences, consider the following state examples:
- California: Four days in jail for first offense, 90 days for second offense, 120 days for third offense
- Florida: No required minimum jail time for first offense, 10 days for second offense, 30 days for third offense
- New York: No required minimum jail time for first offense, five days in jail or 30 days of community service for second offense, 10 days in jail or 60 days of community service for third offense
- Wisconsin: No required minimum jail time for first offense, five days for second offense, 30 days for third offense
- Texas: Three days in jail for first offense, 30 days for second offense, two years for third offense
Vehicular manslaughter or vehicular assault (injury but no death) brings some of the most severe outcomes, and it is always a possibility when driving drunk. 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 zero to 10 years in prison. California recognizes at least two different charges, Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated and Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated, with the former carrying a more severe sentence (4-10 years in the state prison) than the latter (up to one year in the county jail or at least 16 months in the state prison).
Although a life sentence is unlikely, manslaughter is a felony crime that results in the convicted person facing the loss of certain public benefits. Manslaughter is an extreme example of a felony, but depending on the jurisdiction, a DUI may progress from a misdemeanor to a felony if it is a repeat offense. Benefits that can be lost after a felony conviction include government financial aid for college, voting rights, public welfare benefits, public housing, traveling abroad rights, jury service, the right to bear arms, employment in certain fields, loss of professional licensing, and parental rights. Even short of having a felony on one’s criminal record, a DUI conviction can directly or indirectly lead to a host of different types of losses.
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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 will understandably 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. The individual may have an opportunity to regain the license, such as by attending rehab and meeting other requirements.
Professionals, such as attorneys, doctors, and accountants are members of associations that issue them licenses to practice their trade. 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 locales, 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.
In some instances, people may lose their employment indirectly due to their DUI or alcohol- involved arrest. For example, individuals may not be able to fulfill their work requirements in order to attend ongoing court hearings, serve community service, or attend an alcohol treatment program. The employer would have the right to terminate the employee on the grounds of inability to perform job duties. In some instances, state unemployment may not be granted.
DUI and Loss of Child Custody
Individuals with custody of children who are convicted of a DUI jeopardize their parental rights. Having custody of children is contingent upon providing a safe and stable environment for them. 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 (or another alcohol-related crime).
If the custodial parent opposes the noncustodial parent’s challenges, the court process can be expensive, lengthy, and stressful. Another important consideration is whether the state’s child protective services agency become involved. 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 drunk 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 investigate any reasonable allegation of child abuse or neglect. If a DUI court makes a referral to child protective services, the agency will usually first assess if the children are in any imminent danger and if so, remove them from the parental home. In other instances, the agency will 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 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 educational classes, the department of motor vehicles may require them. States commonly require even first-time offenders to complete DUI education before their licenses can be reinstated. Failure to complete DUI educational programs may result in loss of the license as well as additional penalties.
In some cases, a judge may decide to permanently revoke a convicted person’s license. The use of ignition interlock devices may offer an alternative to permanent license revocation, but permanent license loss is a risk of intoxicated driving.
DUI classes teach convicted drivers about the true consequences of driving under the influence and can provide practical education, such as helping these drivers to devise strategies to socialize or safely consume alcohol without involving driving. The time requirements and intensity of the DUI educational programs depend on factors such as the severity of the case (such as the BAC at time of arrest) and age of the convicted driver (whether over or under 21 years of age). DUI education is not a punishment, but rather an opportunity for drivers to regain driving privileges while at the same time learning to be better drivers.
Court-Ordered Alcohol Treatment
During DUI court proceedings, the defendant driver will be required to undergo an alcohol abuse assessment with a qualified court-appointed counselor. The counselor will review the court’s records on the case and provide the convicted driver with a thorough screening process in order to make the appropriate treatment recommendation.13
The counselor will consider factors, such as:
- The number of DUI or alcohol-related convictions
- Any aggravating factors, such as the presence of children
- BAC at the time of arrest
- History of alcohol or drug abuse treatment
- Whether other drugs were present
- Whether any mental health disorders are present
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 one to two sessions to multicomponent rehab programs that can last weeks or months. In the most severe cases, the court may order the individual to an inpatient treatment program.
While a court may order a person to a structured rehab program for a DUI, in some cases, the referral may be to local community services alone, such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Where available, courts may require convicted drivers to attend presentations by injured survivors of DUI accidents or loved ones of individuals who passed away 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.
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- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse. (2021). Alcohol Policy.
- Drinking in America. Olson S, Gerstein DR. Alcohol in America: Taking Action to Prevent Abuse. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1985. 1, Drinking in America.
- Federal Trade Commission. (2013). 21 is the Legal Drinking Age.
- Toomey, T. L., Rosenfeld, C., & Wagenaar, A. C. (1996). The Minimum Legal Drinking Age: History, Effectiveness, and Ongoing Debate. Alcohol health and research world, 20(4), 213–218.
- U.S. Department of Labor. (1990). Drug-Free Workplace Regulatory Requirements.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Federal Laws and Regulations.
- Utah Department of Public Safety. (2021). Frequently Asked Questions.
- Nutt, D. J., King, L. A., Phillips, L. D., & Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (2010). Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. Lancet (London, England), 376(9752), 1558–1565. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(10)61462-6
- Statistic Brain Research Institute. (2016). DUI Arrest Statistics.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (N.A.). Court-Mandated Treatment for Convicted Drinking Drivers.