Defending a DUI / DWI in Rhode Island
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Defending your DWI Case In Rhode Island


There was a time when getting pulled over for driving while intoxicated was no big deal. Often times the police officer wouldn’t even arrest you but follow to your home or make you park the car and call a cab. If you were arrested and hauled before a Rhode Island court many times on the first appearance the court would let you plead guilty to speeding or another charge so you would have no history of a DUI conviction in RI and the consequences of an alcohol related driving conviction.

Those days are long gone. Thanks to public awareness and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, today driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a serious crime in Rhode Island. Depending on where you are charged, you could be charged and / or convicted of an infraction, misdemeanor, enhanced or “aggravated” misdemeanor, or a felony DUI. For example, the state of Arizona has 6 categories of DUI, 2 felony counts and 4 misdemeanor counts. In Maine, even a first time DUI conviction requires jail time. In Wyoming and numerous other states there is a state law prohibiting the prosecutor offering a plea bargain, called “anti-plea bargaining” statutes. Further, in many states having minors in the vehicle when charged with DWI creates added charges if endangering the welfare of a minor, enhanced charges, protective orders, family court actions, and complains to the state’s child protective services.

Brief History of DWI laws


One of the first public service announcements advocating for sober driving, circa 1936

DWI laws have been around for a long time. In 1910 New York State was the first state to prohibit driving under the influence. Other states quickly followed suit. Although on the books, the early laws failed to define what the term "intoxicated" actually meant so they were rarely enforced. In 1938 the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council proposed establishing a specific blood alcohol content (BAC) of .15%. A 1964 study called the “Grand Rapids Study” indicated that there was a substantial increase in driving related fatalities for drivers with a BAC of .08% and over. As such, states began lowering their legal limit to below .15%. However, even with a lowered BAC states still afforded the motorists significant rights in that the BAC level only created a presumption that an individual might be intoxicated.

In 1972, Nebraska and New York passed the first laws stating that driving with a .10 blood alcohol content was conclusively illegal per se, meaning  that no evidence other than a BAC of .10 or more is necessary to show that a motorist was impaired. In October of 2000, President Clinton signed into federal law a mandate that all states to lower their permissible BAC to .08% and if they failed to do so they would lose federal highway construction funds. Consequently today all states prohibit driving with a BAC of .08 or more. Moreover, all states have a “zero tolerance” law for persons under 21 – a lengthy license revocation for any level of a detectable blood alcohol content. 

However, even before 2000, beginning in the late 80’s, states began stepped up enforcement of its operating under the influence (OUI) laws. The charge of DWI was slow to evolve from a “folk crime” that was passively and rarely enforced to a perceived serious public safety threat. Police departments across the nation began DUI units and patrols, and creating checkpoints first on holidays and then randomly whether or not on a holiday. Such roadblocks were challenged as unconstitutionally intrusive, however, state after state ruled that the public safety consideration outweighed justified the governmental intrusion. Further, the courts and state’s attorneys began involving themselves counseling and treatment for even first time offenders. In many states a motorist must submit to pre-conviction substance abuse screening and treatment as a condition of bail or release on recognizance / promise to appear. This counseling is in addition to the post-conviction counseling that a motorist must undergo under their states Department of Motor Vehicle’s Drinking Driving Program in order to re-obtain full driving privileges.

Varying State Laws and Standards for DUI in the United States


Illegal per se is not the only way a person can be charged with alcohol related driving. Another way is known as “common law DUI,” and there is no requirement that a driver blow any level of BAC. While a typical common law statute, such as Missouri’s DWI statute, states simply that a person commits the crime of  DWI while operating a motor vehicle while in an intoxicated condition,  idiosyncrasies in states’ statutes and, especially, significantly different court interpretations, has resulted in diversion as to what constitutes “driving while intoxicated.” For example, jurisdictions disagree on what the terms "operating" or "driving" mean. While many states require that the vehicle be in motion in order for the offense of drunk driving to be committed, some require proof of intent to operate if still stationary, and others such as NY merely require that the motorist be seated in the driver’s seat and the key in the ignition, even if the vehicle is not running.

States also differ on the definition of what constitutes a “motor vehicle” for purposes of the state’s DWI statute. For example, in Florida it is illegal to ride a bicycle while intoxicated. In North Carolina, it is illegal to ride a horse under the influence of alcohol. Contrast that with Missouri, where the DWI statute does not define motor vehicle. Consequently, the in Missouri have defined a motor vehicle to be any vehicle that is self-propelled and not used exclusively on tracks. This means that even a golf cart is a "motor vehicle" for purposes of Missouri's DWI laws.

States also differ on whether or not a person must be on a "public highway" to be charged for operating under the influence. While in some states operating a motor vehicle in your driveway in an intoxicated would be illegal, others such as West Virginia require that the operation occur on a public roadway. Further, many states such as Connecticut expand the meaning of a “public roadway” to include private parking lots, gas stations, private garages, and the like.

Significantly, state laws differ on what the terms "intoxicated" or "under the influence" mean for purposes of common law DWI. In Arizona, it means impairment “[to] any degree", "[to] some degree" or "[to] an appreciable extent" for a finding a motorist was driving under the influence. Contrast the standard with that of Missouri, which is “intoxication that in any manner impairs the ability of a person to operate an automobile…”  To prove a common law OUI conviction evidence must be introduced that the driver in question was, to whatever degree, impaired. This is done through Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs), driving prior to being stopped, speech, appearance and confessions.

Retaining local counsel to defend your driving under the influence charge


If you were arrested for driving while intoxicated in RI, you require local defense counsel that understands Rhode Island’s DWI and OUI laws. In addition, a local attorney also knows the state’s DMV rules and regulations for mandatory suspensions, conditional driving privileges, counseling requirements, and diversion programs. A person charged with DUI, even a first offense, as facing:

  • Jail time
  • A specialized and onerous sentence of “DWI probation.”
  • Large fines
  • Large insurance increases
  • Loss of driving privileges
  • Permanent loss of driving privileges for numerous convictions
  • Mandatory substance abuse counseling
  • A permanent misdemeanor or felony criminal
  • Loss of a job by violating a condition of employmentLoss of commercial driving privileges

License sanctions also occur in a person’s state of licensing even when the conviction occurs in a different state. In addition to the above, many states are now requiring installation of a breath test interlock device on the motorist’s vehicle for periods ranging from 6 to 12 months. This is normally supervised by the county probation department, which in essence causes reporting requirements as if the motorist was sentenced to probation. Further, if the motorist refuses to provide a chemical test (i.e., breath test) that triggers another case brought against the motorist by the DMV which is not judicial but administrative in nature. A finding of a refusal within the meaning of the states department of motor vehicle rules and regulations results in additional license fines, revocations, and sanctions totally separate from the judicial action against the motorist.   

Our attorneys are skilled practitioners in Rhode Island. They know the laws of RI, the rules and regulations of the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Our attorneys can apply the laws to the facts of your case and advise you appropriately as to the best course of action. These include Plea bargaining for a non-criminal disposition, application to a diversion program, plenary preparation for trial, evaluate for motion to dismiss or limit evidence, or pleading guilty to the charge in order to negotiate minimal punishment with the court.

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