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Federal DUI Charges in California

It is possible to be arrested for a DUI under federal law - even if you were driving in California.

1.      When Does Federal DUI Law Apply in California?

The laws of the United States apply on federally owned property within the state of California.

An intoxicated California driver who drives on land owned by the U.S. government may, therefore, be charged with federal -- rather than California -- DUI.

Examples of federal property include:

  • National parks
  • National forests
  • Military bases
  • Native American reservations
  • Airports
  • Post offices
  • Federal courts
  • Federal government buildings.

2.      DUI in a National Park

Section 4.23 of Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations (36 CFR 4.23) governs impaired driving in National Parks.  Under 36 CFR 4.23, it is a misdemeanor to drive on the grounds of a National Park if:

  • Your blood alcohol content (“BAC”) is .08% or higher, or
  • You are unable to drive safely because you are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

The penalties for a first-time DUI within a national park (if no one was injured) include:

  • Up to six (6) months in federal prison,
  • Up to $5,000 in fines, and/or
  • Probation of up to five (5) years.

3. DUI on Other Types of Federally Owned Property

DUI on other properties of the U.S. government is also a federal crime.  However, there are no specific statutes to punish it.  Rather, under the Federal Assimilative Crimes Act (18 USC 13), it is punished as if it were a violation of California law. In other words, you are subject to California DUI penalties... but it is considered a federal crime.

The penalties for DUI under California law include up to six months imprisonment -- more if your DUI caused injury. You may also be subject to additional penalties under 18 USC 13 if you are found guilty of federal DUI and:

  • your DUI caused an injury to… or death of… someone under 18 years of age, or
  • if someone under the age of 18 was in the car with you at the time of your DUI.

4. Loss of Your California Driver's License for a Federal DUI

National park rangers and other federal officers have the authority to confiscate your driver's license.  If a federal law enforcement officer takes your license, he/she will turn it over to the California DMV.  You will then have 10 days to request a California DMV DUI hearing to contest the suspension.

If you do not request a hearing -- or you do not attend one after it is scheduled -- you will lose your driver's license for a period of up to four (4) months (for a first offense).

Those arrested on the grounds of a National Park may also be denied the privilege of driving on federal lands for one year, beginning on the date of their arrest.

5. Important Differences between Federal and California DUI

Penalties for Chemical Test Refusals

Both California and federal law provide penalties for chemical test refusals.

Under California law, however, you are only liable for a chemical test refusal if you are found guilty of DUI. By contrast, federal law makes refusing a chemical test a misdemeanor unrelated to the outcome of the DUI charge.

Thus, under federal law, a refusal to take a chemical test is always a crime -- even if your drunk driving arrest is later thrown out... or you are found not guilty of DUI.

No right to a jury in many federal DUI trials

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that there is no right to a jury trial for a “petty” federal offense.  An offense is considered petty if the maximum base incarceration period is six months or less.

Under both 36 CFR 4.23 and California DUI law, a first-time DUI carries a maximum 6-month sentence.  Therefore, if you go to trial on a first-time DUI charge, your case will be decided by a "bench" trial... that is, solely by a judge.

Federal sentences are served in federal prison

Incarceration (if any) for California DUI is served in a county jail.  If you are sentenced to serve time for a federal DUI, however, you will serve it in a federal prison.  If you are sentenced, instead, to probation, it will be formal probation rather than informal (or "summary") probation.  And finally, there is no way to get a DUI expungement for a federal DUI absent a Presidential pardon.

6. DUI By Military Personnel

Members of the military who drive under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs generally face regular civilian DUI charges. However, if they are not prosecuted by civilian law enforcement, they may face court martial under Section 911, Article 111 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Typically, this only happens when someone in the military is DUI on the grounds of a military base.

Civilians who are arrested for DUI while visiting a military installation are not subject, however, to the UCMJ.  Their case will be turned over to a federal prosecutor for handling under 18 USC 13.

The interaction between federal and California law can be complicated -- but our Southern California DUI lawyers understand it. As former cops and prosecutors ourselves, we know how to challenge DUI arrests and blood alcohol testing.  Best of all, we know how to talk to prosecutors and help keep people out of jail.

Contact us today for a free consultation.  We represent people accused of DUI throughout L.A., Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura Counties. Talking to us is both free and completely confidential.

Southern California DUI Defense


DUI cases are rarely hopeless. DUI convictions are almost never inevitable. Clients retain our California DUI defense attorneys for one reason: they want to fight the case. And win.

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The police arrested you for DUI. You gave a blood or a breath sample. The DUI officer confiscated you drivers license. The police released you with a notice to appear in court in a few weeks. Where do you go from here? Our lawyers are here to guide you step by step.