The Hefty Costs of a DUI

Driving drunk is a bad decision for obvious reasons. Get behind the wheel after too many holiday cocktails and you run the risk of ending up in the back of a police cruiser -- or, worse, the back of an ambulance. But alongside the danger of arrest or causing harm to yourself and others, there's another reason to avoid driving under the influence: DUIs cost big bucks.

"A DUI is just extremely expensive," says Jason Mayberry, an attorney in Tampa, Fla., who specializes in DUI cases at his firm, Mayberry/Rich.

A DUI can cost a driver thousands of dollars for a relatively straightforward offense -- or considerably more if the DUI also involves an accident that caused injuries or deaths. And it can seriously harm your reputation -- consider the case of Douglas Parker, the CEO of U.S. Airways ( LCC) who was nabbed for DUI just a few hours after the company's 2007 takeover bid for Delta Air Lines ( DAL) was rejected.

From towing and bail to lawyers' fees and fines, DUI is an expensive proposition. Here's a rundown on the financial impact of a DUI conviction.

Towing and impound. Failing a field sobriety test is a one-way ticket to the police station. You get to ride in the back of the cruiser while your car gets hitched to a tow truck and dragged to an impound lot. Before you pick up your car, make sure to hit the ATM. "I've had clients pay $300 or $400 after their cars were towed and kept overnight," says Mayberry.

Be aware that DUI laws in some states require people to forfeit their vehicles, especially in the case of a repeat offender. A second-time DUI offender in Tennessee, for example, may have his or her car seized by the state.

Bail. DUI laws vary from state to state. In most cases, however, getting arrested for DUI means an evening in the hoosegow. "Bank on spending the night in jail, or long enough to sober up," says Mayberry.

After that, you'll either be released on your own recognizance or required to post bail -- insurance that you won't skip your court date. In setting bail, a judge will look at the severity of the DUI. Some offenses may cost as little as $100, while others are more complicated. For example, when Lindsay Lohan was booked last year for drunk driving and drug possession, her bail was set at $25,000. Bail can be paid out-of-pocket or through a bail bondsman, who typically charges a fee of 10% of the bond amount.

Lawyers' fees. If you're charged with DUI, immediately contact a lawyer. "In my opinion, it's the most complex misdemeanor," says Mayberry.

An attorney can help you avoid having your license suspended, or can work with prosecutors to potentially reduce a DUI charge to reckless driving, which carries a smaller penalty. (Penalties vary widely from state to state. For example, a DUI conviction in Missouri may carry a fine of $500, while getting pinched in Massachusetts can run $5,000.)

And for more complicated cases, a good lawyer can mean the difference between jail time and probation. "A DUI could cost somebody anything from $1,000 to their job if they have no recourse," he says. "These things can be potentially devastating for somebody."

Lawyers' fees vary from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands for more complicated cases. For a first-time DUI conviction, Mayberry typically charges between $2,500 and $4,000. A DUI accident that results in a death may mean a felony charge for the driver -- and a much bigger job for the lawyers. "The more difficult and the more time-consuming the case is, the higher the fee," says Mayberry.

Insurance premiums. Most DUI convictions find their way to your car insurance company, which means higher premiums -- in some cases, double or triple your normal premiums. Your insurer may put you in a high-risk pool or drop you altogether, leaving you to find another company that will insure a high-risk driver.

After a night on the town, there's a lot to consider before putting your key in the ignition. From increasing the likelihood of getting pulled over to the potential for a fatal accident, driving under the influence is a no-win situation. Add in the big tab to handle a DUI conviction, and that's one expensive hangover. "The cost of a DUI is high," says Mayberry. "For someone who's looking at one, it's worth the cab fare."

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