A few years back, Pennsylvania tightened the reins on its DUI laws, lowering the legal blood alcohol percentage needed to show intoxication from .10 percent to .08 percent. Along with that shift, a new set of penalties went into place, showing the people that Pennsylvania took a strong position on driving under the influence. The 2003 changes in the law remain in place today. If you plan to drive in Pennsylvania anytime soon, there are some things you need to know about how the drunk driving laws operate in the state.
Like all other states, a drunk driving arrest in Pennsylvania triggers both an administrative case and a criminal proceeding. The administrative case is handled by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, who has the authority to revoke the license of a driver arrested for DUI. In order to prevent a total loss of driving privileges for a protracted period, anyone arrested for DUI should retain a lawyer and request an administrative hearing immediately. Like other states, Pennsylvania views driving as a state-sponsored privilege, and the driving Department of Transportation is not hesitant to suspend or revoke driving privileges.
The criminal proceeding takes place according to the guidelines established by the 2003 changes in the law, which became effective February 1, 2004. These include varying levels of punishment for first, second, and third drunk driving prosecutions, and so on.
Interestingly, Pennsylvania deems a first offense an "ungraded misdemeanor." The state does not provide jury trials for these types of misdemeanor offenses, so no first time offenders will be granted a trial by jury.
With or without a jury, the criminal case proceeds on the basis of two possible theories, per se culpability or the traditional offense of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Under the first of these theories, the prosecution need only show that the driver's blood alcohol exceeded the legal limit at the time of the arrest. The driver need not have shown any signs of intoxication in order to be convicted under the per se theory.
Under the second theory, the traditional offense of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the prosecution will generally use the observations of the arresting officer to determine whether or not the driver exhibited signs of intoxication at the time of the arrest. The arresting officer's observations, including general driving pattern, general overall appearance, smell of alcohol, slurring of speech, and performance of field sobriety tests, may be used as evidence in the criminal proceeding.
Because Pennsylvania uses implied consent laws to test arrestees for blood alcohol level, a criminal proceeding will generally include both observations and chemical test results. Implied consent theory says that anyone who drives in the state of Pennsylvania has granted the state his implied consent to be tested for any substances that might make him a hazard on the roads. Anyone who refuses chemical testing deprive his trial of necessary evidence, and also trigger a mandatory one-year revocation of his driving privilege. Implied consent allows a driver to retain the right to refuse, but at a very high price.
Neither the punishment nor the defense for a DUI trial comes cheaply. The best strategy is of course, to keep out of reach of those car keys if you've had a little too much to drink.