Under Lockdown, Californians Consume More Alcohol and Drive Differently: Orange County Residents Most Likely to be Penalized for a DUI

As many California residents shelter in place, state highways have seen dramatic shifts in driving behavior. Traffic on some California interstates has declined as much as 65%. But even as fewer cars populate the road, more people are getting arrested for speeding, and authorities are seeing more arrests for driving under the influence during the day time than would typically be expected. As a result, ValuePenguin analyzed DUI penalization trends across California counties.

The California Highway Patrol (CHP) issued nearly 2,500 citations for speeding more than 100 mph between March 19 and April 19, 2020. That represents an 87% increase from the same period in 2019.

And although DUI arrests have declined in many California counties compared to the same period in 2019, the decline still doesn't match the lower volume of traffic, and arrest rates are higher than expected.

These concerns come at a time when California residents are increasing their alcohol consumption. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Bay Area residents are drinking 42% more alcohol than usual as California has eased its restrictions on alcohol sales. Customers can pick up alcohol from restaurants and drive-through windows or get alcohol delivery. While there are restrictions on to-go containers, the risk of drinking and driving remains a concern.

We define penalization as being found guilty of the violation, while nonpenalization is when a case is dismissed, the perpetrator is found not guilty or the court withholds adjudication. Convictions are divided by the total number of arrests to calculate a penalization rate.

Being cited for a DUI doesn't guarantee a conviction. How much drivers pay for a penalty, however, can vary greatly depending on where they live, according to data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

ValuePenguin found that the rate at which drivers are convicted for their violation varies greatly by California county, as high as 86% in Orange County and as low as 52% in Kings County.



Key findings:

1. Drivers in Orange County are penalized the most for DUI-related traffic violations. Drivers were also more likely to be penalized for driving under the influence in Merin, Ventura, Sacramento and Placer counties.

2. Conversely, drivers in Kings, Alameda, Madera, San Bernardino and Merced counties have some of the lowest penalization rates for DUI-related offenses.

3. Some counties, including Lake, Shasta and Sacramento, more frequently convicted drivers of a DUI felony rather than a misdemeanor. Drivers in Alameda, Colusa and Madera counties were most likely to be found guilty on charges of reckless driving.

4. Counties also vary drastically in terms of how quickly they adjudicate. Madera County residents, for example, may expect to wait an average of 313 days between a violation and conviction. That's more than double the California average of 119 days.

This image shows California counties by DUI penalization rate.

Table of contents

California counties that penalize DUI violations at the highest and lowest rates

In California, DUIs are convicted at the highest rate in Orange, Merin and Ventura counties, the three of which have an average conviction rate of 84%. When it comes to which California counties are the most forgiving of DUI violations, there is a clear leader: Kings County at 52%. For DUIs, drivers in Kings County are penalized nearly 20% less than the California average.

Orange County has the highest rate of DUI penalization

Across the state, California penalized 71% of drivers arrested for driving under the influence. But by county, penalization rates varied from as low as 52% to as high as 86%.

Orange County had the highest rate of DUI penalization in the state. Of 11,467 arrests, 84% were found guilty of a DUI misdemeanor and 2% were found guilty of a felony.

RankCountyDUI penalization rate
1Orange85.9%
2Marin84.3%
3Ventura81.8%
4Sacramento81.7%
5Placer81.0%
N/ACalifornia average71.4%

Kings County has the lowest penalization rates for DUIs at 52%.

In Kings County, only 52% of those arrested for driving under the influence are convicted of a related crime.

Of the 944 arrests in Kings County for the most recent year data was available, 469 cases (52%) were found guilty of a DUI misdemeanor or felony.

Drivers in some California counties are more likely to avoid a felony conviction than in others

Drivers in Lassen saw all DUI violations convicted only as misdemeanors. Lake, Shasta and Sacramento counties, however, saw the highest rates of DUI felony convictions, together approximately double the California average of 1.9%.

Counties with the lowest rates of DUI felony convictions

RankCountyRate
1Lassen0.0%
2Alameda0.6%
3Yuba0.7%
4San Mateo0.8%
5Imperial1.0%
N/ACalifornia average1.9%

Counties with the highest rates of DUI felony convictions

RankCountyRate
1Lake4.2%
2Shasta3.6%
3Sacramanto3.5%
4Placer3.5%
5Siskiyou3.3%
N/ACalifornia average1.9%

Some counties opt for reckless driving convictions instead

Some counties, including Alameda, Colusa, Madera, Sutter and San Francisco counties, were more likely to convict drivers for reckless driving rather than a DUI. These counties all saw reckless driving convictions above 15%.

Counties with the highest rates of reckless-driving convictions

RankCountyConviction rate
1Alameda18.2%
2Colusa17.2%
3Madera16.8%
4Sutter16.2%
5San Francisco15.4%
N/ACalifornia average9.6%

Meanwhile, no drivers in Ventura County saw reckless driving convictions. Marin, Orange and Sacramento counties also had low rates of reckless-driving convictions. These counties were often more likely to convict drivers of a DUI offense. Kings County, which actually has the lowest DUI penalization rate in California, was also in the top five for lowest rates of reckless-driving convictions.

Counties with the lowest rates of reckless-driving convictions

RankCountyConviction rate
1Ventura4.2%
2Marin3.6%
3Orange3.5%
4Sacramento3.5%
5Kings3.3%
N/ACalifornia average1.9%

California counties vary drastically in average adjudication time

Madera County saw the longest average time from violation to conviction at 313 days, more than twice the California average of 119 days. Monterey County, however, saw the speediest adjudications at a mere 60 days, or half the California average.

Longest average time from violation to conviction

RankCountyAverage number of days
1Madera313
2Imperial295
3Contra Costa246
4Merced226
5Kings213
N/ACalifornia average119

Shortest average time from violation to conviction

RankCountyAverage number of days
1Monterey60
2Kern61
3San Joaquin63
4San Luis Obispo65
5Santa Cruz68
N/ACalifornia average119

Consequences of driving under the influence

California drivers with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.08% or higher may face severe legal repercussions. These may include substantial fines, license suspension or revocation, jail time, community service, and more. Additionally, motorists with a DUI conviction are often likely to pay substantially higher car insurance costs in California due to the increased risk associated with their driving record.

Below, we identify the legal ramifications of first, second, third and fourth offenses for driving while intoxicated in California.

First offense

For the first DUI conviction, an offender may be required to

  • Pay fines of up to $3,600, though total costs can grow based on additional penalty fees.
  • Spend up to six months in jail.
  • Surrender their driver's license for at least four months.
  • Enroll in DUI school for three months.
  • Enter a three- to five-year DUI probation.

Second offense

For the second DUI conviction, an offender may be required to

  • Spend up to one year in jail.
  • Enroll in 18 to 30 months of DUI school.
  • Pay fines up to $4,000.
  • Surrender their driver's license for up to two years.
  • Install an ignition interlock device on their cars.
  • Enter a three- to five-year DUI probation.

Third offense

For the third DUI conviction, an offender may be required to

  • Spend up to one year in jail or up to 16 months in prison.
  • Pay fines up to $18,000.
  • Surrender their driver's license for up to three years.
  • Enroll in 30 months of DUI school.
  • Install an ignition interlock device on their cars.
  • Enter a three- to five-year DUI probation.

Drivers with a DUI conviction will also likely be required to carry SR-22 insurance until the state restores driving privileges.

Methodology

DUI arrest and conviction data from 2006–2016 in California was collected from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Counties were only included in the analysis for a given violation if they had at least 100 convictions in the most recent year for which data was available.

We define a "penalization" when the violation was categorized by the California DMV as a misdemeanor DUI, felony DUI or reckless-driving conviction. We define "no penalty"d when there was no record of any conviction associated with the arrest.

Michael Hoffmann is a Senior Research Analyst focused on insurance. He was previously a Technology Editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit and has had prior roles as an ETF and Equity Analyst focused on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and cloud computing.

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.