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DWI vs. DUI in California: What's the Difference?

Posted by John Campanella | Aug 09, 2023 | 0 Comments

In California, there is no legal distinction between DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) and DUI (Driving Under the Influence). The terms are often used interchangeably to refer to the offense of operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs. California primarily uses the term DUI to describe this offense, regardless of whether the impairment is due to alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both. The key point is that if you're caught driving while impaired, you can be charged with a DUI in California.

DWI vs. DUI in California

Aspect DWI DUI
Terminology Driving While Intoxicated Driving Under the Influence
Usage Used in some states Used in many states, including California
Impairment Definition Typically alcohol-related Can refer to alcohol, drugs, or both
Legal Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limit May vary by state (e.g., 0.08%) May vary by state (e.g., 0.08%)
Drug Impairment May or may not include drugs Can include both alcohol and drugs
Penalties Vary by state and offense severity Vary by state and offense severity
License Suspension Can result from conviction Can result from conviction
Legal Consequences Fines, jail time, probation, etc. Fines, jail time, probation, etc.
Awareness Programs May involve alcohol education programs May involve alcohol or drug education programs

What Are the Various DUI Charges in California?

In California, there are several types of DUI (Driving Under the Influence) charges that individuals can face based on specific circumstances and factors. The following are the main categories of DUI charges in California:

  1. Standard DUI (Vehicle Code 23152(a)): This is the most common type of DUI charge. It pertains to driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both. To be charged with a standard DUI, the driver's physical or mental abilities must be impaired to the extent that they cannot drive as a sober person would.

  2. DUI with Excessive BAC (Vehicle Code 23152(b)): This charge applies when a driver's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is measured at 0.08% or higher for individuals aged 21 and over, or at lower levels for drivers under 21 or those on probation for a prior DUI.

  3. DUI of Drugs (Vehicle Code 23152(e)): This charge is specific to driving under the influence of drugs, whether prescription, over-the-counter, or illegal substances. It encompasses impairment caused by substances other than alcohol.

  4. DUI Combination (Vehicle Code 23152(f)): This charge applies if a driver is impaired by both alcohol and drugs simultaneously. It covers cases where a driver's ability to operate a vehicle is compromised due to the influence of multiple substances.

  5. DUI Causing Injury (Vehicle Code 23153): This is a more serious charge that comes into play when a DUI-related accident results in bodily injury to another person. It can lead to enhanced penalties and potentially felony charges, especially if the injury is severe.

  6. Felony DUI (Vehicle Code 23152): In certain situations, a DUI can be charged as a felony, such as when an individual has prior DUI convictions within a certain timeframe or when the DUI results in serious injuries or fatalities.

  7. DUI with Prior Convictions (Vehicle Code 23540-23550): These charges result in increased penalties for individuals who have prior DUI convictions on their record within a specified "lookback" period (usually 10 years).

  8. Underage DUI (Vehicle Code 23136 and 23140): These charges apply to drivers under the legal drinking age (21) who have any measurable amount of alcohol in their system (Zero Tolerance law) or whose BAC is above a lower threshold (0.05% or 0.01%).

If Your BAC Is Under 0.08%, Can You Still Get a DUI in CA?

Yes, you can still be charged with a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) in the United States, including in California, even if your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is under 0.08%. While a BAC of 0.08% or higher is the legal limit for DUI in most states, including California, it's not the only factor that determines whether you can be charged with a DUI. Other factors, such as your driving behavior and overall impairment, also play a significant role.

If law enforcement officers believe that you are operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs, even if your BAC is below 0.08%, they can still arrest you for a DUI. This is because impairment can affect your ability to drive safely, regardless of your BAC level. Signs of impairment can include weaving between lanes, driving at inconsistent speeds, failing field sobriety tests, and exhibiting other behaviors that suggest your ability to drive is compromised.

In some cases, you might also face charges under different sections of the law, such as a "less safe" DUI charge, which is based on observed impairment rather than a specific BAC level.

It's important to note that DUI laws can vary by state, and there might be specific nuances and legal thresholds that apply. If you're facing a DUI charge or have questions about DUI laws in your jurisdiction, it's recommended to consult with a legal professional who is knowledgeable about local regulations and can provide you with accurate advice.


1. What is the difference between DWI and DUI in California?

  • In California, there is no legal distinction between DWI and DUI; the terms are used interchangeably to refer to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

2. Can I be charged with a DUI if my BAC is under 0.08%?

  • Yes, you can still be charged with a DUI if you show signs of impairment, even with a BAC under 0.08%.

3. What is the legal BAC limit for drivers 21 and over in California?

  • The legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit is 0.08% for drivers 21 and over.

4. Are there different penalties for DUI involving alcohol and drugs?

  • No, the penalties for DUI involving alcohol or drugs are generally the same in California.

5. Can I refuse a breathalyzer or blood test in California?

  • You can, but refusing a chemical test can result in automatic license suspension and other penalties under California's implied consent law.

6. What happens if I'm under 21 and caught with any alcohol in my system?

  • You can face legal consequences under California's Zero Tolerance law, even for a small amount of alcohol.

7. Can I be charged with DUI if I'm taking prescription medication?

  • Yes, if prescription medication impairs your ability to drive, you can be charged with DUI.

8. What are the penalties for a first-time DUI offense in California?

  • Penalties may include fines, license suspension, mandatory alcohol education programs, and possible jail time.

9. How long does a DUI stay on my record in California?

  • A DUI conviction can remain on your record for 10 years.

10. Can DUI convictions be expunged in California? 

  • In some cases, yes, after completing probation and other requirements.

11. Are there enhanced penalties for repeat DUI offenses? 

  • Yes, penalties increase with each subsequent DUI conviction within a 10-year lookback period.

12. What are the penalties for DUI causing injury in California? 

  • Penalties can include longer jail time, higher fines, and possible felony charges.

13. Can I face a felony charge for DUI in California? 

  • Yes, under certain circumstances, such as multiple prior DUI convictions or causing serious injury.

14. Can DUI convictions affect my insurance rates? - Yes, DUI convictions can lead to significantly higher insurance premiums.

15. Can I represent myself in a DUI case in California? 

  • While possible, it's highly recommended to seek legal representation due to the complexities of DUI law.

16. Do DUI checkpoints occur in California?

  • Yes, law enforcement conducts DUI checkpoints to deter impaired driving.

17. What are field sobriety tests, and do I have to take them?

  • Field sobriety tests are assessments of physical and cognitive abilities; you have the right to refuse them.

18. Can a DUI affect my professional licenses? 

  • Yes, some professions have licensing boards that consider DUI convictions when assessing licenses.

19. Can I get a restricted license after a DUI suspension? 

  • In many cases, yes, you may be eligible for a restricted license to drive to work or school.

20. Can I travel to Canada with a DUI conviction? 

  • A DUI conviction may affect your ability to enter Canada; it's recommended to check Canadian entry requirements.

21. Can I challenge the legality of a DUI checkpoint stop?

  •  Yes, under certain circumstances, you can challenge the legality of a checkpoint stop.

22. What is the best way to choose a DUI lawyer in California? 

  • Look for a lawyer with experience in DUI cases, good reviews, and a proven track record.

23. Can I refuse a breathalyzer test without consequences?

  • Refusing a breathalyzer test can lead to license suspension and other penalties.

24. Can I get a DUI while parked or sleeping in my car?

  • If you're in control of the vehicle and impaired, you can potentially be charged with DUI.

25. Are DUI laws different for commercial drivers in California? 

  • Yes, the BAC limit for commercial drivers is lower (0.04%) and DUI penalties can affect commercial licenses.

26. Can I plea bargain a DUI charge in California? 

  • Plea bargaining might be possible to reduce charges, but it's subject to legal procedures.

27. What's the difference between a wet reckless and a DUI in California? 

  • A "wet reckless" is a reduced charge that carries less severe penalties than a DUI.

28. Can I be arrested for DUI if I'm not driving? 

  • In some cases, you might still be arrested if you're in control of the vehicle and impaired.

29. Can I attend alcohol education programs online after a DUI in California? 

  • Some programs might offer online options, but it's important to check with the court for approval.

30. Can I fight a DUI charge in California?

  • Yes, you can contest a DUI charge with the help of a legal professional who can challenge evidence and procedures.

About the Author

John Campanella

I have been representing people accused of drunk driving since I began practicing in 1995. I am active member of the National College of DUI Defense, a member of California DUI Lawyers Association, I am certified by the National Highway and Traffic Association for the administration of Field Sobriety Tests. I regularly attend DUI continuing education of the Bar, have tried over 35 Jury Trials, hundreds of pretrial motions and over 1000 DMV hearings all relating to DUI cases.


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