Washington DUI Laws

(253) 518-3643

In the state of Washington, DUIs are no small thing. In fact, the laws are among the strictest in the country; and come with some unforgiving penalties and mandatory sentences attached. It’s normal to feel some apprehension. And most people have a lot of questions about the charge.

Washington DUI laws are meant to be intimidating. From the state’s legal limit, DUI testing requirements, and the impact of a refusal, the entire DUI process can seem overwhelming, especially for first-time offenders. You’ll need an ally to help you move past a DUI charge and at The Law Offices of Morgan Fletcher Benfield, PLLC, we are here to provide direct answers and peace of mind as we fight for a favorable resolution.

If you or a loved one has been charged with driving under the influence in Tacoma or any surrounding area, call (253) 518-3643 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a skilled DUI attorney.

Being Stopped for a DUI

Every case is unique, but police officers across Washington must adhere to some firm guidelines when investigating someone for driving under the influence. Here is a brief overview of what you can expect in a DUI traffic stop:

  1. The Initial Stop: To pull you over, a police officer must have more than just a hunch that you have been drinking. Officers look for things like speeding, swerving on the road, or failing to properly signal to justify traffic stops. If you were not drinking, this encounter will probably end in a traffic ticket or a warning to have an issue with your vehicle fixed. However, during these routine traffic stops the Officer will typically be looking for reasons to elevate the stop to a criminal investigation.
  2. Investigation: When the officer approaches your car, they will be looking for things like the aroma of intoxicants, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and other indicators that you may be under the influence or affected by drugs or alcohol. As the officer speaks with you they will generally be scanning visible areas in the car for evidence and contraband.
  3. Probable Cause: The police must consider the totality of facts and evidence to determine if probable cause exists for an arrest. For instance, if you swerved on the road and were nervous when handing over your insurance card, but there is no smell of alcohol and you don’t appear inebriated, the officer may not have enough probable cause to proceed with an arrest or even further investigation.
  4. Field Sobriety Tests: The next step usually involves a police officer asking if you don’t mind performing VOLUNTARY field sobriety tests. There are three standardized field sobriety tests according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, One Leg Stand, and Walk and Turn used to determine if people are under the influence based on clues observed by the officer. You may also be asked to submit to a portable breath test (PBT). This is used to garner a preliminary breath sample on the side of the road, but it is not admissible in court because it has not been approved as an evidential breath test (Datamaster). The PBT is sometimes confused with the mandatory test, which if refused, results in a compulsory license suspension. These two tests are, however, completely separate. These tests are voluntary, and though it may be difficult, you should politely refuse any test except possibly the PBT if you believe you are under the legal limit.
  5. Arrest & Charges: If the officer is satisfied that you are driving under the influence, he or she will place you under arrest and read you your rights. You will be transported to a police station for processing and prepped for the MANDATORY breathalyzer test to determine your official Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level, which will detriment the severity of your alleged DUI offense.

Legal Limit and BAC Explained

A DUI in Washington is defined by RCW. 46.61.502.  This statute illustrates that you can be charged with a DUI if you are found driving with a BAC of 0.08 or higher or under the influence/affected by alcohol or other drugs.  To clarify, being “under the influence or affected” means that you can also be charged even if you refuse a field testing and officers believe you are otherwise under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

It’s also important to know that the term “drugs” does not only refer to illegal substances. Prescribed medications or over-the-counter items like cough syrup and sleep aides can also create intoxicating effects. Legally possessing a medication is not a defense for DUI.

Other important BAC levels to consider are:

  • .08 or higher for individuals 21 and over
  • .02 or higher for Individual under 21
  • .04 or higher for CDL drivers
  • A marijuana (THC) concentration of 5.00 nanograms or higher
  • Found to be under the influence or affected by an intoxicating liquor or other drug

Physical Control

There is also a less frequently used Washington DUI law relating to the physical control of a vehicle (RCW 46.61.504). Essentially, if law enforcement finds that you are in “physical control” of a vehicle and are intoxicated by the same standards referenced above, you can still be charged with DUI. Physical control refers to times when a car is occupied, not in motion, but can move.

Implied Consent for DUI Testing & Refusals

Simply put, everyone with a driver’s license in Washington has already given implied consent that they will submit to breathalyzer testing if they are arrested for driving under the influence. The failure to provide a lawfully requested sample is considered a “refusal.”

Deciding to refuse a breath test after a DUI is serious and has considerable implications. In certain circumstances, the absence of a test can provide a degree of leverage, but refusing comes with its own set of legal challenges. Law enforcement in Washington handle DUI refusals according to RCW 46.20.308, with penalties including mandatory license suspension and even time in jail, if convicted.

It is important to remember that for a refusal conviction, the court or the Department of Licensing (DOL) needs to show that you were properly advised or permitted to read about the impact of your refusal, outlined in RCW 46.20.308. Additionally, there are behaviors and actions apart from saying “I refuse” or “I decline” that can be considered a refusal. For example, if you pretend to blow into the machine or prolong the process to influence the results.

Defending Against a DUI in Washington

If you’re charged with a DUI in Washington, it will generally be treated as a gross misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. However, your exact penalty including your potential license suspension from the DOL will largely depend on things like your BAC, your prior criminal history, and the circumstances surrounding the incident.

With so much involved, it is easy to understand people’s fear. Keep in mind that there are always options available. By working with a knowledgeable DUI defense lawyer, you can find a way to minimize or remove any negative impact caused by a DUI conviction. Once you discuss your situation with a capable attorney, the first step towards building an effective DUI defense will be to examine everything that led to your arrest:

  • Did the officer involved have cause to initiate a traffic stop?
  • Was there sufficient probable cause to arrest you for a DUI?
  • Were the field sobriety tests properly administered?
  • Was the breath test performed correctly?
  • Did law enforcement appropriately advise you of your rights?
  • Were any mistakes made in collecting evidence?


At The Law Offices of Morgan Fletcher Benfield, PLLC, your attorney will scrutinize every detail and explore any mitigating factors that may apply. We will look at your lab test results to dispute their validity, the weather conditions on the date of your arrest to determine accurate road conditions, the performance of the officers involved to identify any mistakes, and any medical or physical limitations that would influence your demeanor and ability in a field sobriety test.

A DUI Doesn’t Have to Be the End of the Road

If you have been charged with a DUI in Tacoma, Washington or any of its surrounding counties, it is essential to find a lawyer committed to securing the best possible outcome. Call attorney Morgan Fletcher Benfield today at (253) 518-3643 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to learn about all your options and your next move.