December 14, 2006
DUI: The $10,000 ride home
A fine is just the start of what you'll pay for a drunken-driving conviction. Insurance-rate increases, legal bills, alcohol treatment and licensing fees can push the cost into five figures.
BY: Christopher Soloman
If you need any more reasons not to drink and drive, consider this: A driving-under-the-influence conviction is a financial wrecking ball. A typical DUI costs about $10,000 by the time you pay bail, fines, fees and insurance, even if you didn't hit anything or hurt anybody.
The penalties are intended to be discouraging. Alcohol played a role in nearly 40% of U.S. automobile fatalities in 2005. That's 16,885 deaths, a figure nearly unchanged over the past decade, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But states are cracking down. The last of the 50 states have lowered their thresholds for DUI to .08% blood-alcohol content. Police arrested 1.37 million people last year for driving under alcohol's grip, about one in every 140 licensed drivers, the FBI says.
But forget the humiliation and hassle for now. Forget the toll on lives. Just look at what a DUI does to your wallet:
Bail. You'll have to shell out bail to get released after your arrest. Cost: $150-$2,500.
(Costs shown in this article are for first-time DUI offenders. Costs and penalties are often more severe if you're a repeat offender or your blood-alcohol content is above .15%.)
Towing. When you're arrested, your car gets towed. In some places, retrieving it costs only $100 or so. But Chicago, sensing a moneymaking opportunity, ensures it really hurts: The city charges about $1,200 for the first 24 hours and $50 for each additional day of storage, says Chicago DUI defense attorney Harold Wallin. If you can't afford to get your car after 30 days, the city auctions it and then comes after you with a civil judgment for the impoundment bill, if the car's sale didn't cover the fees. Some cities around Chicago are doing the same, Wallin says. Cost: $140-$1,200.
Insurance. One of the biggest hits a drunken driver takes is in his insurance premiums.
"If you get a DUI conviction, it will likely affect your insurance rates for (at least) the next three to five years," says Carole Walker, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
How much? "They could double, triple, even quadruple," Walker says. Some companies such as State Farm Insurance will move you to a portion of the company that handles higher-risk policies.
But "many insurance companies will drop you even upon arrest, regardless of conviction," says Steven Oberman, a Knoxville, Tenn., DUI attorney. And if your policy isn't renewed, you'll have to try to find insurance someplace else or see whether your state has an assigned-risk pool for insurance. Either way, you'll pay for it. For example: Illinois estimates that the high-risk insurance costs an additional $1,500 a year for three years, on average.
Why three years? Most insurance companies look at records for at least three years and sometimes for five years, Walker says. To begin rebuilding your reputation in an insurer's eyes, you have to keep your nose completely clean - no speeding tickets or other traffic citations.
But the financial impact of the DUI doesn't end after three years: You'll likely have to go as many as five more years, incident-free, to get back to the "preferred" status with the lowest premiums that you perhaps once enjoyed. In short, "it can be up to eight years afterward" that the DUI can affect you, Walker says. Ouch. Cost: $4,500 or more.
Legal fees. Attorneys might charge as little as $500 to enter a quick plea. But with so much at stake, many people accused of DUI fight the charge. That's when things start to add up.
Attorney Oberman says legal representation can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000, depending on the rigor and complexity of the defense. But that's not the only fee. Oberman says a vigorous defense sometimes requires hiring an investigator ($1,000 to $3,000) to examine the arrest scene to poke holes in the arresting officer's story. There may be a need for expert witnesses who can testify about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of field sobriety tests ($3,000 and up). Usually, Attorney Wallin says, fees are $2,000 to $3,000 for a trial on a first-offense case, although they can climb to $7,500 or more with some lawyers. "A lot of times, my fees are some of the smallest expenses that people have to worry about," given all the other costs, he says. Cost: $2,000-$25,000.
Fines. Fines and court fees for breaking the law range from state to state, from a minimum of $300 in Colorado and $685 in Washington to as much as $1,200 in Illinois. "The fines have gone up dramatically over the last few years in Illinois," says Wallin, "A few years ago in Chicago, the typical DUI fine was about $300 on the first offense. And now it's $900 to $1,200." Cost: $300-$1,200.
Alcohol evaluation: An evaluation is usually required of anyone who is sentenced by the court for drunken driving. Cost: $181 in Colorado, for example.
Alcohol education and treatment. If you're convicted, you usually have to undergo an education or treatment program, especially if you want to get your license again. Treatment can vary hugely in scope or extent. Cost: $350-$2,000 for basic treatment.
License reinstatement fee. Once a driver has shown, by completing courses and treatment, that he deserves his license back, the state charges him for the reissue. Cost: $60-$250.
Additional fees. Colorado, for example, will slap you with myriad other fees:
$10 jail filing fee.
$78 Victim Assistance Fund payment.
$25 Victim Compensation Fund payment.
$90 for the Law Enforcement Assistance Fund.
$15 Brain Injury surcharge.
$25 Victim Impact Panel assessment.
If you had been particularly drunk, a judge might order that an ignition lock be placed on your car to test your breath and prevent your car from starting if you're intoxicated. In Tennessee, for example, this costs $65-$70 a month. Cost: $308 and up.
The unexpected and sometimes unquantifiable costs.
Finally, there are several other costs that you need to remember:
Life-insurance-premium increases. With a DUI arrest or conviction, you could see an increase in your life-insurance bills because insurers may ask if your license has ever been suspended.
Lost time = lost money. People who've gotten DUIs report missing a lot of work (and therefore losing a lot of income) dealing with their mistake, as a result of court dates, community service and sometimes a jail sentence. That doesn't even count the lost free time.
Lose the license? Lose the job. For many people who need to drive to and from their jobs - much less those who drive for their jobs - losing a license can be devastating. And here's a shocker: In several states, including Washington, your license may be suspended for 90 days simply upon your arrest for DUI, regardless of whether you end up being convicted. If you're convicted, your license can be revoked for a year, or longer in other states, until you complete all the court's requirements and pay all fines.
No drunks in the cockpit or the ER. If you're a doctor, stockbroker, airline pilot, lawyer or nurse, a DUI conviction could affect the status of your professional license, Oberman said.
It's not good for the resume. A DUI lingers on your criminal records for employers to see if they do a background check, harming your future job prospects. In Washington state, a DUI conviction also stays on your driving record for 14 years, and an employer can ask for and receive that information.
Adding it up
So in the end, how much does a DUI cost?
The STOP-DWI Office in Erie County, N.Y., estimates that a drunken-driving conviction there costs $9,500 - if no one is injured and there's no accident. Colorado estimates about the same thing.
Illinois' secretary of state pegs the amount closer to $10,600 but says the figure would be nearly $15,000, on average, if people counted the lost income from all the hassles.
Any way you slice it, it's a pricy mistake.
But the biggest thing that's lost isn't money, Oberman says. "The biggest thing here is the stigma that you get. Everybody looks at you and says, 'Yeah, he's the drunk driver.' And the stigma doesn't have a financial cost. But the stigma does have both a social cost and an employment cost."
The deadliest states for DUI