Home//Blog//Ottawa DUI Charges: How Serious Do They Get?

Being charged with impaired driving in Ottawa—or driving under the influence (DUI)—is no laughing matter. A conviction can have a significant impact on many aspects of your life, including limiting your driving privileges, imposing substantial fines and other requirements, and even threatening your freedom.

The law treats drunk driving in Ottawa and across Canada very seriously, and it’s easy to understand why: drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs are more likely to cause accidents that could catastrophically injure themselves and other motorists or, worse, take a life. Moreover, the Ottawa Police Service’s traffic unit reports that DUI charges are on the rise throughout the province, with numbers up almost 25 percent in 2022 from 2021. In an attempt to curb this concerning trend, MADD Canada even ran a campaign during the final months of 2022 reminding drivers to remain sober behind the wheel, especially as the holidays approached.

Considering the harshness with which DUI convictions are litigated in Canada, it may feel like your fate is sealed following an impaired driving arrest—whether or not you committed the offence. But remember that you are presumed innocent under the law and that you have the right to defend yourself in court. The worst thing you can do is ignore the charges completely, but failing to mount a legal defence will have the same consequences. Only with support from a qualified and trustworthy defence lawyer can you maximize your legal options and achieve the best possible outcome in your case, often avoiding the most serious penalties. Read on to learn about the effects of a DUI conviction and how an experienced lawyer like Yoav Niv can help.

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Understanding DUI

DUI is generally referred to in Canada’s Criminal Code as impaired driving. This means driving or operating a vehicle while at all intoxicated or having consumed more than the legal limit of alcohol, cannabis, over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs and/or banned substances (an any combination) based on blood levels. Blood, breath or saliva tests revealing prohibited levels of any of these substances in a driver’s system are immediate grounds for a DUI charge.

The legal limits are as follows:

  • Alcohol – 80 milligrams (mg) or more per 100 millilitres (mL) of blood. Sometimes this is referred to as having a blood-alcohol content or concentration (BAC) of .08 percent or more.
  • Cannabis – THC is the psychoactive compound in cannabis that is regulated. There are two levels of legal limits of THC content in the blood: a minor DUI summary offence is triggered with anywhere from 2 nanograms (ng) to 5 ng per mL of blood detected, resulting in a modest fine. Presence of upwards of 5 ng of THC per mL of blood results in a more serious charge and penalties.
  • Alcohol and cannabis in combination – When both alcohol and THC are detected in the blood simultaneously, the legal limits are .05 percent BAC (50 mg of alcohol per 100 mL of blood) and 2.5 ng of THC per mL of blood.
  • GHB – GHB, or Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, is a depressant that can have severely impairing effects on a user; however, this compound can occur naturally in the body at safe levels. The legal limit is 5 mg of GHB or more per litre of blood.
  • Illegal substances – There is no acceptable legal limit for banned substances such as cocaine, psilocybin, psilocin, ketamine, LSD, PCP, MDMA, methamphetamine and heroin/6mam, meaning that any levels detected in the system within two hours of driving can trigger criminal DUI charges.

What happens if I am stopped on suspicion of DUI?

Alcohol and drug screenings may occur if police suspect a driver’s impairment at a routine traffic stop (such as for speeding or disobeying traffic laws), at a sobriety checkpoint or following an accident (either at the scene or in its immediate aftermath at a hospital or police station).

At a traffic stop or accident scene, BAC is detected in a breath (Breathalyzer) test. Whether or not police have reason to suspect a driver of alcohol use, they can require the driver to take a breath test; drivers have a legal right to refuse the test, but refusal is a criminal offence under section 320.15 of the Criminal Code and will result in its own charges.

Police may also use oral fluid (saliva) drug screeners in the field to detect levels of THC and certain other drugs in drivers; however, they must have reason to believe the driver has drugs in their system based on observations about the driver’s appearance (red eyes, excessive sweating, muscle tremors), demeanour (agitation, belligerence) or behaviour (slurred or abnormal speech), or on other facts or circumstances they witness (cannabis odour, presence of drug paraphernalia).

Breath and saliva tests may be used following or in addition to a Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) and/or a Drug Recognition Expert Evaluation (DRE). If you test above the legal limit in a roadside breath test or oral fluid drug screen, you will be handed an immediate citation or driving prohibition and likely brought in for a blood test.

What are the different DUI charges in Ottawa and their penalties?

Police will issue DUI charges based on the results of breath, saliva and/or blood tests. Depending on the nature and severity of a driver’s impairment, they may face charges for any of the following offences:

  • Alcohol-impaired driving – For testing above the legal limit of .08 percent BAC (80 mg of alcohol per 100 mL of blood) within two hours of operating a vehicle.
  • Drug-impaired driving – For testing above the legal limits of 5 ng of THC per mL of blood or 5 mg of GHB per litre of blood or for having any levels of illegal substances detected in the blood within two hours of operating a vehicle.
  • Combination impaired driving – For testing above .05 percent BAC (50 mg of alcohol per 100 mL of blood) AND 2.5 ng of THC per mL of blood simultaneously within two hours of operating a vehicle.
  • Refusal to provide a sample – For refusing to take a breath, saliva or blood test.

Conviction on any of these charges can result in harsh penalties that only increase upon repeated offences. At a minimum, a first-time offender in Ottawa faces the following consequences:

  • Loss of driving privileges for one year (may be reduced to three months in some cases). Fees owed in order to reinstate the
  • Mandatory installation and use of an ignition interlock device for one year upon licence reinstatement.
  • Additional local and federal fees of at least $1000 (at least $2000 for refusing breath, saliva or blood test).
  • Required participation in an alcohol assessment and education course (Back on Track).
  • Mandatory annual insurance premium increases to at least $5000 for a minimum of three years.

Upon second, third and subsequent convictions, offenders face increased federal penalties, including mandatory minimum prison sentences of 30 days and 120 days, respectively, as well as greater fines and longer licence suspensions.

More extreme circumstances also result in more severe  penalties. For example, testing with a BAC between 120 and 159 mg of alcohol per 100 mL of blood increases the mandatory minimum fine to $1500; the fine jumps to $2000 if a driver tests above 160 mg of alcohol per 100 mL of blood. Inflicting bodily harm or loss of life on another traveller or bystander due to impaired driving can result in many more years’ incarceration beyond the minimum—lifetime imprisonment is the maximum penalty for DUI-causing death.

Impact beyond the courtroom

The legal ramifications are just one aspect of an impaired driving conviction that affects your life and well-being. Possessing a criminal record can impact your reputation socially, disqualify you from certain employment opportunities or living arrangements, and put you in financial and emotional strain. Without a licence, it may be difficult or impossible to fulfill certain responsibilities like travelling to work or transporting loved ones, such as children or elderly families who do not drive. And even after regaining your license, you may find that the increased insurance premiums make owning a vehicle cost prohibitive.

Rather than simply accept the DUI charges against you or try to handle them alone, it’s important to exercise your legal right to mount a defence in order to minimize or mitigate the potentially life-altering effects of a serious criminal conviction.

How can a lawyer help?

Defence lawyers provide invaluable guidance as you deal with the challenges and uncertainty of Ottawa DUI charges. Beyond that, they possess the legal acumen to parse through the evidence against you and determine the best course of action. Effective defence strategies use tools like examining the legality of your traffic stop and the procedures that led to your arrest, questioning your breath, saliva or blood test’s validity, and negotiating downgraded charges in a plea deal. The sooner you consult a lawyer following an arrest for impaired driving, the more options you’ll have to achieve a favourable outcome.

Seek legal counsel immediately if you face DUI penalties in Ottawa

Get the legal support you need to navigate the criminal justice system in Ottawa. Book a free consultation with defence lawyer Yoav Niv today to learn more about how he can help you avoid the most serious consequences of an impaired driving conviction—contact our law firm online or call +1 (613) 518-2906 to talk to someone right away.

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