Negligent Driving in the First Degree
In Washington, DUI is not the only alcohol related driving offense. Although DUI is a gross misdemeanor charge, there is a less serious drinking and driving offense called Negligent Driving in the First Degree. Negligent Driving in the First Degree is a simple misdemeanor punishable up to 90 days in jail and a $1000 fine (compared to DUI which carries a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a $5000 fine). The crime occurs when someone drives a motor vehicle in a manner likely to endanger persons or property after exhibiting the effects of having consumed alcohol. The major distinction between the two crimes is that for a DUI you must be impaired by alcohol. With Negligent Driving you need not be impaired. Simply, you need to drive negligently after having consumed alcohol.
An example of Negligent Driving in the First Degree would be if you were weaving in and out of traffic somewhat erratically and get pulled over. When the officer talks to you, you smell of alcohol and admit to having had a couple of beers. However, you pass the field sobriety tests and ultimately don’t get arrested for DUI. In reality, Negligent Driving in the First Degree is rarely charged. More often than not, the police will default to charging you with a DUI and let the prosecution sort it out. In fact, officers typically take the position that it is a DUI if you fail the field sobriety tests. There can be a number of reasons why someone will fail field sobriety tests besides being impaired. Nevertheless, if you fail the field sobriety tests and get arrested, you will likely be charged with a DUI in Washington, even if you blow below the legal limit (I’ve seen DUIs charged as low as 0.04% BAC).
Negligent Driving Penalties
One of the biggest differences between Negligent Driving and DUI is that Negligent Driving does not require a license suspension. This is somewhat convoluted because in many cases where you are charged first with a DUI and face a DOL license suspension but then negotiate a reduced charge to Negligent Driving, your license will be suspended for reasons other than the conviction for Negligent Driving.
Additionally, a conviction for Negligent Driving does not carry any mandatory minimum sentence requirements. That means that in theory you could be convicted of Negligent Driving and face no jail, no work crew, no house arrest and no fines. Because Negligent Driving is a driving related criminal offense, there are a few state mandated conviction fees that are not technically considered fines. These include a traffic penalty assessment, an emergency response fee, and in some cases a breath testing fee. Even considering these fees, a Negligent Driving conviction is typically half as expensive in court costs than a DUI.
Perhaps the most favorable advantage of a Negligent Driving conviction over a DUI conviction is that there is no requirement that you install an ignition interlock device in your vehicle for a first time Negligent Driving conviction. Considering that a DUI requires you have an ignition interlock device in your vehicle for at least one year, Negligent Driving can be an attractive alternative.
Reducing a DUI Charge
In certain cases, Washington prosecutors will agree to reduce a DUI charge to a Negligent Driving charge instead. Every case is different and there are no hard line rules, but a DUI lawyer can sometimes negotiate your DUI charge down to a Negligent Driving charge to take advantage of these benefits. Factors that can sometimes weight in your benefit to warrant a reduction are low BAC, cooperativeness with the police, lack of criminal history, your relative value to the community at large in other respects, the attorney you hire. Factors that can work against your obtaining a reduction are dangerous driving, disrespect towards the officer, prior DUI charges or convictions, high BAC, obvious intoxication, and warrants. As stated before, every case is different, so it pays to hire an experienced DUI attorney who can effectively negotiate on your behalf on your DUI case. Any opportunity to negotiate a DUI charge down is an opportunity well seized.
One thing to consider is that a reduction down from DUI will statutorily still count as a prior offense for sentencing purposes if you get another DUI in the next seven years. The statute treats certain reduced charges the same as a DUI conviction for future sentencing purposes. This can be especially important given that second and subsequent DUI convictions within a seven year period are treated extremely harshly under Washington law.
If you are facing a DUI charge and want to consult with an attorney about whether your charge can be reduced, we offer a free initial consultation on every case, so it pays to take the time to meet with an experienced lawyer who can help.