So you got arrested for driving under the influence in Atlanta, hired an attorney, went to trial, and now owe a substantial fine or debt as a result of either a plea deal or a jury that found you guilty. Most of the time, bankruptcy can’t wipe out this debt, but it all depends on the circumstances.
Death or Bodily Injury as a Result of DUI
There are four separate bankruptcy statutes that deal with the non-dischargeabilty of DUI debt. The first is concerned with bodily injury and harm. 11 U.S.C. 523 deals with whether certain debt are able to be wiped out in bankruptcy. When debts as a result of drunk driving come up, the relevant statute is 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(9), which provides that debts “for death or personal injury caused by the debtor’s operation of a motor vehicle, vessel, or aircraft if such operation was unlawful because the debtor was intoxicated from using alcohol, a drug, or another substance” shall not be discharged.
In these types of cases, the creditor/victim does not have to file or do anything special with the bankruptcy court. The debt is automatically deemed non-dischargeable. But it’s always good advice to hire an attorney and request an “adversary proceeding” be filed to ensure that your rights are protected if you happen to be the victim. In fact, I would argue that you should file an adversary proceeding in a majority of the cases dealing with DUI. This is because bankruptcy court is a civil court, not a criminal court, and the standards for proving whether someone was under the influence are different. In a criminal court, the jury must find the defendant “not guilty” if there is any reasonable doubt as to their guilt. In a civil proceeding, the victim must merely prove that the debtor was intoxicated by a “preponderence of the evidence,” or is it more likely than not (51%) that the debtor was intoxicated while operating the vehicle that resulted in the victim’s injury.
For example, if a debtor is found “not guilty” in a Georgia court for DUI but still hurt someone, that victim could bring a non-dischargeability action against the debtor and prove that even though there was reasonable doubt as to the debtor’s guilt in a criminal proceeding, it is still more likely than not that he was drunk.
Property Damage from DUI
The second statute dealing with DUI debts and bankruptcy is 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(6). This statute provides that debts for “for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity” are non-dischargeable. If you damaged the property of another person while under the influence of a controlled substance, that person has to actually file an “Adversary Proceeding” in bankruptcy court to determine that the damage was done with willful and malicious intent. Being drunk does not necessarily mean that the damage to property was willful and malicious, so reckless conduct or negligence won’t cut it. But importantly, the victim must actually file a complaint in bankruptcy court asking the court to deem the debt non-dischargeable under 523(a)(6). The deadline to file such a complaint is 60 days after the first date set for the meeting of creditors (the 341 meeting). If the creditor misses this deadline by as much as one minute, his ability to enforce that debt will be wiped out.
Restitution or Government Fines
11 U.S.C. 523(a)(13) provides that any debt “for any payment of an order of restitution issued under title 18, United States Code” is non-dischargeable. Title 18 includes crimes of violence, but most cases for DUI will not involve federal law, so this statute will not apply. The fourth and final statute dealing with DUI debt dischargeability is 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(7), which provides that debts for “. . . a fine, penalty, or forfeiture payable to and for the benefit of a governmental unit, and is not compensation for actual pecuniary loss . . .” are non-dischargeable. This will encompass most DUI fines in state court. In Georgia DUI cases, these government fines are typically in the $1,000 range, so it’s not a ridiculous amount of money, but still enough to sting.
What About Chapter 13 and DUI?
Chapter 13 has a more extensive discharge statute than Chapter 7. All of the above debts ARE dischargeable in a Chapter 13 case, except for 523(a)(13) dealing with death or bodily injury as a result of a DUI. So if you have a government fine under 523(a)(7) or a property damage claim under 523(a)(6), a debtor can file Chapter 13 to pay only a portion of the debt back through a payment plan.