A DUI costs how much in Illinois?

Lawyers say the quoted $18,000 average is too high, but the costs are steep

If you're coming to Starved Rock State Park this Forth of July weekend, watch how much you drink and drive or this man will take what could be a very costly breath test. Utica Police officer Mark Credi, demonstrating a Breathalyzer test Tuesday, June 27, 2023, at the Utica Police Department, is among those watching for drunk-drivers -- and the Secretary of State pegs the average cost at a whopping $18,000.

Darrell Seigler has practiced law for 44 years and knows which days his phone will ring. One is July 5, when someone usually calls to say he over-imbibed on Independence Day and got pulled over on the drive home.

“Holiday weekends generate DUIs – that’s a fact,” said Seigler, who practices in Ottawa, the La Salle County seat. “There’s no number you can put on it, but celebrations will sometimes increase the number of cases.”

There also is no hard-and-fast number for what it will cost if you get caught drinking and driving, although the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office took a stab at it. The average statewide cost of a DUI, the office said in a recent report, is $18,130.

That tabulation is based on insurance increases ($6,000), legal fees ($2,000), court costs ($3,600), income loss ($4,230), rehabilitation ($300), license reinstatement ($580) and a breath-interlock device ($1,420).

But no attorney interviewed for this story agreed with the accuracy of the state’s $18,130 price tag – at least not for a first-time offense.

“I was shocked when I heard that figure,” said Peter Siena, a longtime prosecutor now in private practice in Morris in Grundy County. “That seems really high to me.”

“For a first offender, that’s high,” agreed Chuck Rea, an Elburn attorney whose practice includes Kane and DuPage counties. “But the costs are high. When they say $2,000 in legal fees, that’s probably in the range for a plea, but if it goes to trial, then the fees can vary lawyer by lawyer.”

There’s no consensus on what a first-time offender can expect to pay. Lawyers in La Salle and DeKalb counties put the bottom end at about $6,000, while an attorney in the Sauk Valley area said even a first-timer faces a tab north of $12,000.

How much is a first-time DUI in Illinois? It depends on fines, costs

Why such a diverse range? David B. Franks, an attorney in Lake in the Hills in McHenry County, said there are too many variables to pinpoint a reliable average.

“It depends on whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony,” Franks said. “It depends on whether the license is suspended or revoked. And a Chicago attorney is going to charge a lot more than what you’d pay in my region.

“So I don’t know how they’re coming up with this ‘average cost.’ There’s really nothing static about this. This isn’t as cookie-cutter as people may think.”

William Hotopp, whose Sandwich practice includes DeKalb and Kendall counties, said he put the state average at three times what a first-time client would pay, although a few aggravating circumstances could send the total sharply higher.

“It’s a whole different ballgame if it’s a second DUI or a felony,” Hotopp said, “but there’s no way a first-time DUI is going to hit $18,000. There’s just no way.”

Attorneys agree that fines and costs are onerous and have steadily escalated over time.

“Every year, the cost of a DUI goes up,” said Jim Mertes, an attorney in Sterling. “I’ve been practicing law for 31½ years, and every single year since the beginning of my practice, the cost of a DUI has gone up.”

The financial pain also hinges, to a degree, on how many drinks a motorist might have had before starting the car. A first-time DUI suspect whose blood-alcohol content falls below 0.15 will be deemed “low risk” and probably can bank on 10 hours of classroom instruction. Blow more than 0.15, however, and the meter runs longer. Legally drunk in Illinois is considered .08 or more.

Seigler remembers when a DUI was a far less serious matter than it is today. The change began in the 1980s, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving lobbied the states to put teeth into their DUI laws. Seigler estimated that DUI costs then were 40% what they are today.

“Things were discretionary in terms of jail,” Seigler recalled. “I can remember when classes weren’t required. It was more courtroom-specific instead of dealing with third-party providers like BAIID (Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock Device) vendors. Those things didn’t happen in the early 1980s.”

The .08 BAC

A portable breathalyzer detector is enclosed in a case inside the Utica Police Station on Tuesday, June 27, 2023.

The changes came gradually, but a few milestones stand out in the timeline. In the late 1990s, the blood-alcohol content threshold was lowered from 0.1 to the current .08. In the past decade, breath-interlock devices were required even for first-timers, albeit with exceptions.

Mertes said the Legislature has moved in recent years to impose uniform fines and costs throughout the state. It’s a noble goal, he said, but not necessarily a fair approach.

“Equal doesn’t equal fair,” Mertes said. “A $500 fine might be nothing for a rich person but might be devastating for a poor person.”

Every year the cost of a DUI goes up. I’ve been practicing law for 31½ years, and every single year since the beginning of my practice, the cost of a DUI has gone up.”

—  Attorney Jim Mertes

Franks said lawmakers also reduced the ability for motorists to get court supervision, which proved consequential for repeat offenders – even those who were many years removed from their first offense.

“There was a time where you had a DUI and five years elapsed between your first and second DUI, [and] you could get court supervision. Then they said, ‘No, it has to be 10 years.’ Then MADD ramped up its lobbying efforts in Springfield, and the Legislature passed a law saying you could get court supervision only once in your lifetime.”

That was bad news for drivers who’d had a long-ago brush with the Breathalyzer machine. As Franks explained it, someone who got a DUI in the 1980s and gets one in 2023 will, if convicted, get their license revoked – with no regard to the four decades spent without an arrest.

Motorist behavior, however, was slow in changing. Drunken-driving statistics held steady until the Great Recession, and then the legalization of cannabis cut into alcohol’s popularity.

DUIs in decline in northern Illinois

Today, DUI statistics are in decline. DeKalb, La Salle and McHenry counties reported a combined decline of 61% over the past 15 years.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato said the number of DUI cases in his county has “fallen greatly” over that span, but said there is no single explanation for why.

Calls for service for violent crimes have risen, which has reduced the availability of officers to patrol for impairment.

On the other hand, a tavern patron who realizes he overdid it has more options for getting home safely than in previous eras.

“It could be Uber,” Amato said. “It could be people are more cognizant of DUI, too.”

Arrests may be tumbling, but accidents are another story. Mothers Against Drunk Driving tracks court cases but also monitors fatalities resulting from impaired motorists. Those are definitely not going down.

Erin Payton, regional executive director for MADD Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, said not only are fatalities at a 16-year high in Illinois – up 37% from 2012 – but, for reasons still under study, fatalities spiked during the pandemic when overall motorist activity was down.

“We know people are still driving impaired,” Payton said, “but Illinois has really good DUI laws. They’re some of the tougher ones in the country.”

Tough as they may be, some attorneys think DUI laws and penalties are irrelevant and aren’t having a deterrent effect on driver behavior.

“We have not seen any reduction in the volume of DUI cases in the past 10 years,” Mertes said of his caseload. “The volume is substantial, and there’s been no change except during the pandemic because there was a reduction in travel during the shutdown.”

“Do I think the penalties are working? No,” Hotopp said. “I don’t think when someone is drinking they’re using logic. Their concern is get home and don’t get caught.”

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Tom Collins covers criminal justice in La Salle County.

Megann Horstead

Megann Horstead

Megann Horstead is a multi-award-winning news reporter for the Daily Chronicle, covering city government and schools in DeKalb. Her news reporting experience led to a first place award in local government beat reporting from the Illinois Press Association.

Amanda Marrazzo

Amanda Marrazzo is a staff reporter for Shaw Media who has written stories on just about every topic in the Northwest Suburbs including McHenry County for nearly 20 years.