What happens if you get in a traffic accident while drunk?

While drunk driving cases are always serious, the consequences the intoxicated driver faces increase when any kind of accident occurs.  By accident, we mean incidents involving the drunk driver’s vehicle and another vehicle, person, or property.  In this article our drunk driving attorneys analyze situations involving drunk driving accidents from a defense perspective.  We’ll describe what to do immediately after a drunk driving accident, the legal consequences of the accident, and some broad legal advice for individuals navigating OWI situations involving accidents.

As drunk driving defense attorneys, we certainly help many people in your position.  Drunk driving accidents are scary, but it’s important to remember that things like this happen every day.  One piece of advice won’t change throughout this article: it’s crucial that you retain an ally to assist you through this difficult process.  We recognize that good people make mistakes, and hiring a top drunk driving defense attorney is one of the best first steps to take.  In 2015, in Wisconsin, there were 5,174 alcohol-related crashes throughout the state.  These things happen all the time.

What to do after a drunk driving accident

There are certain important steps to take after a drunk driving accident.

Firstly, remain at the scene of the accident

Certainly remaining at the scene of the accident is the responsible thing to do.  Try to remain calm.  Next, there are certain things to do which have the possibility of mitigating any harm you’re facing in the future:

  • Firstly, contact any necessary emergency services.  Certainly if there are injuries to you, the other driver, the pedestrian, or anyone else, mitigating the damage is important.  Hit and run penalties are certainly very different when we consider the difference between bodily harm, great bodily harm, and death.
  • Secondly, take photographs of the scene.  There could come a point where an investigation turns on your word against the individual you hit.  Photographs provide actual, objective documentation of the scene of an accident.
  • Thirdly, should you help the other driver?  This is a difficult question.  Certainly alleviating any harm is important, but you risk a few things.  First, that person is the victim.  He or she will be a witness against you.  And anything you do involving that person will certainly be used against you in court.  At the very least, you must “render reasonable assistance to any person injured in the accident.”
  • Finally, be prepared to interact with police.  They will ask you questions.  A police officer may perform field sobriety tests.

What if I leave the scene of the accident?

Leaving the scene of the accident is certainly a problematic scenario.  There are certain defenses that apply to cases involving charges like homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle.  Those defense don’t apply to hit and run causing death charges.  Section 940.09(2) of the Wisconsin Statutes indicates that:

… the defendant has a defense if he or she proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the death would have occurred even if he or she had been exercising due care and he or she had not been under the influence …

Again, this only applies if it’s a homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle case.  If you leave, and you’re charged with hit and run causing death, suddenly you face Class D felony charges, and up to 25 years in prison.

Finally, section 346.67 of the Wisconsin Statutes deals with a driver’s obligations upon striking a person or an occupied vehicle.  The law requires:

The operator of a vehicle involved in an accident shall reasonably investigate what was struck and if the operator knows or has reason to know that the accident resulted in injury or death of a person or in damage to a vehicle that is driven or attended by a person, the operator shall stop the vehicle he or she is operating as close to the scene of the accident as possible and remain at the scene of the accident until the operator has [provided his information and reasonable assistance to the victim].

Secondly, expect law enforcement to arrest you

Unfortunately, once in this situation there’s only so much you can control.  If you’re operating while intoxicated, and involve yourself in a car accident, the cops are going to arrest you.

Finally, consult with a drunk driving defense attorney

Fighting drunk driving charges begins with securing representation at the earliest opportunity.  Law enforcement officers aren’t interested in simply determining what happened at the scene of the accident.  They’re looking to arrest someone and refer charges to the district attorney.  It’s crucial that you hire a top criminal defense attorney to ensure your rights are protected.  Defending any kind of criminal charge on your own is a bad idea.
A drunk driver causes a car accident.
Car accidents caused by drunk driving are dangerous. Hire a drunk driving defense attorney to help you through this.  Contact Van Severen Law Office at (414) 270-0202.

Legal consequences of a drunk driving accident

What are the legal ramifications you face after a drunk driving accident?  Below we’ll explain drunk driving penalties.  In addition to those issues, you’ll likely receive numerous traffic citations at the scene.  One of the most frequent citations officers issue is inattentive driving.  Another could be deviating from your designated lane. In aggravated situations, an officer could cite the driver with a reckless driving ticket.  And finally, underage drivers may face additional charges, such as underage alcohol possession.

Can you be charged with drunk driving after an accident?

The police don’t know you’re operating while intoxicated until they stop your vehicle.  And in order to stop your vehicle, they need probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that you’re violating the law.  If you’re involved in a car accident, that issue no longer applies to your case.  Police will stop at the scene and investigate, and frequently upon noticing any sign of intoxicants, convert the investigation to one focused on OWI.  Certainly there are numerous issues that determine how a lawyer might handle a DUI or drunk driving case.

Upon being charged with drunk driving (not including an accident), you face the following penalties:

  • First offense OWI – $150 – $300 in fines, 6-9 month driver license revocation, no time in jail;
  • Second offense OWI – $350 – $1,150 in fines, 12-18 month driver license revocation, 5 days – 6 months jail;
  • Third offense OWI – $600 – $2,000 in fines, 2-3 year driver license revocation, 45 days – 1 year in jail;
  • Fourth offense OWI – This charge is a felony.  $600 – $10,000 fines, 2-3 year driver license revocation, 60 days – 6 years prison;
  • Fifth offense OWI –  $600 – $10,000 fines, 2-3 year driver license revocation, 6 months – 10 years prison.

To sustain a conviction for operating while intoxicated, the government must show two things:

  • Firstly, that you operated a motor vehicle on a public highway.  Importantly, “public highway” includes any public roadway open to drivers; and
  • Secondly, you operated that vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant.

Subsequent OWI charges

It’s important to recognize that as you commit additional drunk driving offenses, the penalties increase.  A first offense doesn’t carry any jail penalty.   A second offense carries a mandatory minimum of 5 days.  Fourth and subsequent offenses are felonies.  Felony convictions carry the possibility of time in prison.  Wisconsin handles subsequent DUI offenses more seriously as the number grows.

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DUI accidents with injuries vs. without injuries

Importantly, there isn’t any difference in penalties for the individual facing an OWI charge, and the individual facing an OWI charge after an accident that didn’t cause any injuries.  When an injury or death occurs, the penalties increase.

DUI accidents with injuries

If the defendant has no prior OWI convictions, OWI causing injury is a misdemeanor offense.  The maximum penalty it 1 year in the county jail and up to $2,000.00 in fines.  Importantly, this charge carries with it a mandatory minimum penalty of 30 days jail.  

If the defendant has a prior OWI, causing injury while OWI with prior OWI offense or chemical test refusal is a Class H felony.  A Class H felony carries a maximum possible penalty of 6 years in prison, $10,000.00 in fines, or both.  There is no mandatory minimum penalty for this offense.

Finally, for causing great bodily harm by OWI, the charge is a Class F felony, punishable by up to 12.5 years in prison, fines or $25,000.00, or both.  The biggest difference between this and the prior offenses is the great bodily harm language.  Section 939.22(14) of the Wisconsin Statutes defines great bodily harm:

Great bodily harm means bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death, or which causes serious permanent disfigurement, or which causes a permanent or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ or other serious bodily injury.

What happens when someone dies in a DUI accident?

Certainly this is the worst case scenario a drunk driver faces.  Frequently at sentencing for an OWI 1st case, the court advises the defendant that he or she is lucky someone didn’t die because of his or her actions.  Homicide while OWI is a Class D felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison, fines or up to $100,00.00 or both.  Along with the significant penalties the driver faces, there’s certainly significant negative social stigma attached to the conviction.

What do I do next?

Were you involved in a drunk driving accident?  The next steps you take are the most crucial.  We explained what to do at the scene.  And we’ll assume you’re out of jail.  Next, you should contact the best local drunk driving defense attorney you can find.  That individual can help you navigate the process you’re about to experience.

To speak with one of the drunk driving defense lawyers at Van Severen Law Office, contact us at (414) 270-0202.

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