We’ve heard stories before of felons who became lawyers but how does having a DUI conviction affect a law student? Can you be a lawyer with a DUI? Can you become a lawyer with a misdemeanor or a felony? Is it still possible to attend law school, sit for the bar examination, and ultimately obtain a license to practice?
The hard reality is that a drunk driving conviction impacts the rest of your life. And if you’re a law student, you face serious consequences in addition to things like fines, time in jail, criminal convictions, and loss of your job.
First, if you’ve found yourself in this situation, it’s crucial you hire a drunk driving defense attorney as soon as possible. An online search should show numerous law firms and law firm directories in your area. Review client testimonials to get an idea of the level of representation a firm provides. Drunk driving law can be complex so make sure you’re hiring a specialist.
Consequence 1: Non-Criminal Penalties
Certain jurisdictions consider a first offense drunk driving charge an ordinance violation. For example, in Wisconsin a first offense charge carries a maximum possible penalty of 6-9 months driver license revocation, a fine of up to $300, and a substance abuse assessment. If your blood alcohol content (BAC) was found to be over .15%, you’re required to install an ignition interlock device in your vehicle for 12 months.
What’s missing? Jail time. Frequently in other jurisdictions (like Illinois), a first offense drunk driving charge carries a criminal penalty. That being said, plea negotiations for that charge often result in a reduction to something like reckless driving, which is a non-criminal forfeiture. Such a result puts you in the same place as described in Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, law students face additional collateral consequences. When applying for admission to the state bar, you’re required to disclose all traffic and law violations as part of the moral character requirement. Traffic violations certainly include first offense drunk driving cases. Once investigators learn of your drunk driving conviction, they’ll certainly look further into substance abuse issues and your subsequent treatment. While one drunk driving conviction likely won’t prohibit you from admission to the bar, it could delay your admission and your ability to practice law. In other words, it could make things more difficult.
Consequence 2: Misdemeanor Criminal Penalties
Second or subsequent drunk driving cases generally carry criminal convictions and jail penalties. In Wisconsin, a second offense drunk driving charge carries with it a potential jail penalty of 6 months, fines up to $1,100, along with a driver license revocation and ignition interlock device for 12-18 months. A driver convicted of a second offense drunk driving charge must sit in jail for a mandatory minimum of 5 days. Many other states operate similarly to Wisconsin.
Jail penalties attach to criminal convictions. And a criminal conviction results in a record. When you’re asked by the bar whether you’ve been convicted of a crime, the answer is yes. This is certainly very problematic.
This is significantly more problematic for law students. A second offense drunk driving charge isn’t simply a ticket: it’s a crime. When you previously had to explain one incident of substance abuse, now you would need to explain why you didn’t learn a lesson the first time around. State bar organizations are more critical of individuals with criminal convictions. They’re also certainly more critical of individuals with numerous convictions of any sort.
Consequence 3: Felony Criminal Penalties
Is drunk driving a felony? In California, a fifth or subsequent drunk driving charge is a felony. In Wisconsin, a fourth offense qualifies as a felony. Drivers in Wisconsin convicted of this offense will sit in jail for at least 60 days. The maximum penalty is 6 years in prison and $10,000 in fines. You’ll lose your driver license for a maximum term of 3 years.
The collateral consequences of a felony are serious. In Wisconsin, felons are prohibited from possessing firearms for the rest of their lives. Federal laws prohibit possession of ammunition for a firearm. Additional collateral consequences could include loss of a professional license, ineligibility for public funds (e.g. welfare, student loans), loss of voting rights, and ineligibility to serve on a jury.
The consequences for law students are amplified. Upon a felony drunk driving conviction, the state bar organization will certainly be concerned with your substance abuse issues. Certainly investigators will want significant proof of substance abuse treatment and sobriety. Importantly, though, a felony conviction does not automatically prevent you from obtaining a law license in many states.
Consequence 4: Loss of Your Job
A first offense drunk driving conviction is just a ticket. You certainly can’t lose your job, right? Wrong.
Do you drive for your job? Do you typically travel to foreign countries for work? Do you drive a company car? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be out of a job.
Canada prohibits individuals with drunk driving convictions to enter into the country. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first offense, fourth offense, a misdemeanor offense, or simple ordinance violation. Any drunk driving conviction prohibits entry into Canada. Other countries that might deny your entry include Mexico, China, Japan, Malaysia, Iran, and New Zealand. If your employer requires you to enter any of these countries, maintaining your job will be difficult.
If your company has a fleet of vehicles, frequently the insurance coverage prohibits them from keeping you employed upon conviction and loss of your license. Certain rental car companies will prohibit individuals with occupational licenses from renting vehicles. These situations could force an employer to terminate you, depending on the vehicle situation.
Consequence 5: Loss of Your Commercial Driver License
A commercial driver license (CDL) is a license required to drive commercial vehicles such as tractor trailers, semi-trucks, dump trucks, and passenger buses. Without a CDL, you cannot legally operate these vehicles.
Obtaining a CDL requires a relatively clean driving record. Once you obtain a CDL, drunk driving convictions will impact your ability to keep it. In Wisconsin, a first offense drunk driving conviction will result in a one year revocation or suspension of your CDL. Upon a second drunk driving conviction, a CDL is lost permanently. And unfortunately, there is no long term remedy that allows you to restore your CDL.
While there aren’t many lawyers who need commercial drivers licenses, you cannot know what your future employment might look like. If you ever need to obtain a commercial driver license (even for volunteering opportunities), a drunk driving conviction will make that more difficult.
Consequence 6: Social Penalties
Drunk driving charges carry social penalties no matter the offense. Most states prohibit individuals from operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content of .08%. It’s likely your friends and family won’t judge you for having a few drinks every once in a while. A few drinks at dinner could easily put you over the legal drink limit. But once you get in the car and drive? That’s a whole different story.
It usually doesn’t require more than a few degrees of separation to discover someone negatively impacted by drunk driving. Whether that individual had been previously hit by a drunk driver, or experienced something as serious as having a family member killed by a drunk driver, these individuals could draw negative conclusions about you. Thankfully, unless you caused some kind of collateral damage to the individual, acceptance of responsibility and dedication to substance abuse treatment could repair that relationship.
Social penalties apply to law students and everyone else. Drunk driving impacts everyone, no matter what your education or career path says about you.
Importance of Hiring a Drunk Driving Defense Attorney
The penalties for drunk driving offenses are obviously serious. Just because you committed an offense doesn’t mean that you will be automatically convicted. Thankfully, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides certain safeguards to protect us against illegal police conduct. If law enforcement officers don’t have a reason to stop your vehicle, the remedy for an illegal stop is often suppression of any evidence obtained after the stop occurred.
And what evidence is that? Everything. A good drunk driving attorney could challenge your statements and suppress them for use at trial. The blood alcohol content results from a test of your blood, breath, or urine could be suppressed. And if all that material is suppressed, it’s unlikely the government will convict you. Finally, it’s important to recognize these rights apply to all offenses, even first offense convictions in states where the offense is non-criminal.
Drunk driving law is specialized. Administrative penalties, mandatory minimum penalties, and other issues require your attorney to maintain constant attention to the law. Not all attorneys keep on top of the law and not all criminal defense attorneys focus on drunk driving. When hiring an attorney, make sure it’s someone who focuses on drunk driving.
About the Author
Matthew Meyer is a founding partner of Meyer Van Severen, S.C., in Milwaukee, WI. The firm focuses 100% of their practice defending individuals accused of all drunk driving and criminal charges throughout Wisconsin. Meyer is a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and is consistently recognized among the top defense lawyers in Wisconsin.