Connecticut’s DWI Penalties Get Tougher; Be Careful and Aware

Summer on the horizon brings the promise of hot, sunny days and long, expansive evenings that encourage family barbecues, fine dining at restaurants and socializing at festive gatherings like wine tastings, craft beer dinners and sophisticated parties featuring the latest martinis or artisan cocktails.

Indulging in moderation isn’t a sin, it’s a lifestyle enhancement. Fine wine makes fine food taste better, Connecticut’s craft beers have become world-class, and new local distilleries produce artisan spirits such as bourbon and vodka that reflect a distinguished heritage and pride of place.

Beware the shadow hanging over the summer socializing season: It’s the specter of getting pulled over for Operating a Motor Vehicle While Under the Influence of Alcohol (OUI), often referred to as driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI).

While responsible guests rely on designated drivers, or enjoy just one alcoholic beverage, the need to exercise caution is greater than ever because Connecticut’s law on OUI changed as the result of legislation that took effect last summer (July 1, 2015), imposing harsher outcomes for even first-time offenders.

In the past, a first-time offender—let’s say a professional with a slight build who missed lunch, later had two glasses of wine at an office gathering and wound up slightly over the legal limit—would likely have secured admission into an Alcohol Education Program. That and staying out of trouble for a year would have led to the charge being dismissed.

But those days are gone. Now, even first-time offenders whose blood alcohol exceeds the legal limit of 0.08 are subject to a 45-day license suspension, and after that they are required to have an Ignition Interlock Device (IID) installed in their vehicle—a costly and sometimes tricky situation that is just one of the new complexities adding to the importance of having an experienced attorney.

“They should call the lawyer from the police station if they can, if they know a lawyer, but certainly have an attorney before the first court date,” says Cramer & Anderson partner James D. Hirschfield, who has studied the intricacies in the state’s revised law and finds reasons for concern.

“A conviction for DWI is a pretty serious offense,” Attorney Hirschfield said, explaining that drivers who are arrested subsequently face two separate but related actions, the criminal proceeding and an administrative process with the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

While application can be made to allow offenders to drive to and from work or school during the 45-day suspension period, the IID—which measures Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) like a Breathalyzer test—is non-negotiable.

First-time offenders have to deal with the device for a year after the license suspension ends, and those with a second conviction live with the IID for three years after their license has been restored.

There are many issues that may cause difficulties, beginning with the costs associated with the IID, including an administrative fee due to the DMV and having to pay to have it installed. “Every month you have to go back and they calibrate it, even if you’re perfect,” Attorney Hirschfield pointed out.

“The state’s position is that these devices have cut down on the number of repeat offenders,” he said, “but aside from being an effective deterrent an IID is also expensive to have installed and calibrated monthly, and it is also time consuming to go to an approved IID provider for these services.”

Here’s how it works:

Mounted in a vehicle, an IID looks like a small remote-controlled unit. It’s wired into the car’s engine, and drivers must blow into it before starting the vehicle. If they are over the legal limit, the vehicle will not start. There is also what’s called a rolling retest, which is called for randomly and cannot be anticipated. When the device issues an audible signal indicating a retest is required, a motorist has six minutes in which to pull over and complete the retest.

Failure to do so—and any other type of failure, such as being over the limit—results in having to have the IID recalibrated and a 30-day extension of the length of time it must remain in the vehicle.

Attorney Hirschfield cited a situation in which a contractor started a work vehicle on a cold winter morning to warm it up, and then went inside to have coffee, missing a cue that a rolling retest was required.

Listerine or certain breath mints can throw an IID off, signaling a failure for someone who has had no alcohol, the attorney said, adding, “There are drivers who have had a cinnamon Danish that caused the IID to register a failure.”

“The technology is improving but is still not perfect, and there may be reasons why persons driving with an IID might have the use of their IID improperly extended by the DMV,” Attorney Hirschfield said.

The IID is just one of many issues to consider for those facing OUI charges, or those who want to be informed and prepared should they ever find themselves pulled over by a police officer.

“You have to drive slow and safely,” Attorney Hirschfield warned. “In a DWI case, police have to have probable cause for each step that they take.” For example, “Were you swerving? Is the light on your license plate out?” In documenting a suspected OUI, arrest reports will often say, “The operator fumbled for his license; I noticed a strong odor of alcohol on his breath and his eyes were glassy or bloodshot.”

Police conduct a sobriety field test, and according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, this is what may happen next:

If you are arrested for OUI:

  • You will be detained by the police and read your rights.
  • Your vehicle will be towed at your expense.
  • You will be taken in a police cruiser to the police station.
  • If the Breathalyzer test registers a BAC of .08 or higher, you will be held on the presumption that you were operating under the influence.
  • You will be kept in a police lock-up until you are bailed out.
Attorney Hirschfield

Attorney Hirschfield

Under the prior law, Attorney Hirschfield said, refusing to take a Breathalyzer test resulted in an automatic six-month suspension of driving privileges. Now a refusal results in the same 45-day suspension received by someone who takes and fails a Breathalyzer.

“For that reason, there may be different considerations in deciding whether to submit to a Breathalyzer test at the time of an arrest for OUI,” said Attorney Hirschfield, who has obtained acquittals for clients in OUI cases tried to a jury.

Anyone seeking more information on the complexities of Connecticut’s OUI law may reach Attorney Hirschfield in the Litchfield office of Cramer & Anderson—the regional firm with other offices in New Milford, Danbury, Washington and Kent—at 860-567-8718. His email is jhirschfield@cramer-anderson.com.