Security Clearance & DUIs

Updated: March 25, 2021
In this Article

    There are many obvious consequences to getting pulled over by the police, being given a sobriety test, failing it, and being charged for Driving Under The Influence (DUI). The civil penalties can range anywhere from fines, tickets, and mandatory counseling to loss of driving privileges, incarceration, restitution, and lawsuits in certain cases.

    But those are just the civil penalties. What happens to a military member if she or he is charged with a DUI or a similar offense? The first concern will be the incident itself-was anyone hurt or killed as a result of the DUI?

    The next concern will be what to do with the offender, and depending on the severity of the case, that could mean non-judicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or it could mean reductions in rank, pay, and suspended career options. A military member who gets a DUI enters a new world of scrutiny and unwanted involvement by the chain of command.

    It also means a potential problem in getting a security clearance granted, renewed, or maintained. Yes, military members are responsible through their conduct for maintaining the eligibility to hold a security clearance. And a DUI can seriously jeopardize that eligibility.

    Getting A DUI As A Military Member

    The security clearance issue is a very important one, but it’s not at the top of the list of procedures that must be followed when dealing with alcohol-related incidents. That does NOT mean that the service member’s conduct and decision-making at the earliest levels of the incident do not count. Quite the opposite.

    Everyone makes mistakes. Some make a mistake only once, never to repeat it. The military justice system seems to be organized in some cases with this idea in mind. The notion that the United States military shouldn’t be a “one-mistake only” career option where second chances are hard to come by.

    But much depends on the nature and severity of the alcohol-related incident that brings a service member under the scrutiny of the chain of command.

    Severity Counts

    For example, a soldier pulled over for a sobriety check driving alone, and not otherwise in violation of the law may be guilty of a serious mistake (given the military’s zero-tolerance policies for drinking and driving), but the severity of that mistake did not include injuries, accidents, or property damage.

    In such a case, would the soldier be given any form of leniency for being a first offender? Conversely, what is the chain of command to do with someone who has had more than one DUI?

    Alcohol-Related Incidents And The Military’s Stance On Them

    DUI incidents range in severity and so does the military’s response to them. An incident in Northern Japan in the mid-1990s saw an American service member get into a car crash with at least one fatality (not the driver).

    The results of that single incident resulted in curfews, mandatory sobriety checks at the front gate, and more. The drunk driver was punished, and so were his fellow service members.

    A different incident in the same area in 2012 resulted in a complete lockdown of at least one squadron. All who served in that organization were restricted to the base following an incident where an American service member accidentally damaged a private Japanese home while driving.

    Early reports of this incident were unclear about the involvement of alcohol, but the measures taken by the military regarding these overseas incidents is a clear indication of how seriously it can take the problem.

    DUI Charges

    As mentioned above, your conduct as an Airman, Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or Coast Guard member following a DUI is an important factor in how the incident affects your future.

    How and where you are charged with a DUI will affect what kinds of legal consequences await not counting what the incident might do to your security clearance. Believe it or not, all the preliminaries we’ve been discussing up to this point do lead to the issue of what happens to your security clearance if you get a DUI.

    The first thing anyone charged with a DUI should do is to hire a lawyer. Even if you plan to plead guilty, admit you broke the law, and make yourself willing to make any reparations required, you need legal counsel with experience in both military law and DUI law to get you the best possible legal representation.

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a lawyer is only good if you want to contest the DUI. A lawyer can help a judge and/or jury decide if the facts in the case indicate a one-time only problem OR a recurring problem that could be addressed with the right combination of rehab, counseling, public service, and self improvement.

    A person who pleads guilty to a DUI, DWI, or any other legal term used to describe what happens when you drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but does not have a lawyer to offer a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate the offender potentially faces stiffer penalties, fines, and other consequences. Why?

    It’s not that the lack of a lawyer damns the defendant. It’s more closely associated with the ability to convince the judge/jury that the guilty party is interested in reforming, getting better, and making amends.

    The indication of this willingness may come through a commitment to a rehab program or similar treatment, the previously mentioned counseling, etc.


    What Happens To Your Security Clearance If You Get A DUI?

    Your security clearance is granted based on the issuing agency’s confidence in you as a trustworthy person able to maintain the good military order and discipline to meet the requirements of the clearance level granted. For civilians, similar standards apply.

    And just as the details of a DUI conviction are important in determining the level of punishment required, your security clearance review must include the details so the examiners can make a similar determination. What does that mean?

    Basically that if it can be demonstrated that the DUI was a one-time incident, or the result of an ongoing problem with underlying issues that have been addressed. The DUI must be deemed an incident unlikely to be repeated. Furthermore, for clearance purposes, the alcohol or substance use must not be an ongoing problem.

    The clearance review essentially depends on whether the facts establish that the person who got the DUI has since addressed their issues, are not having substance problems, and that the DUI and its underlying causes have been dealt with in the proper manner.

    Patterns Count

    Those who have multiple DUIs, alcohol-related incidents, or similar issues already will have a much harder time convincing those conducting your security clearance screening that the latest DUI or similar incident can be forgiven in the interest of approving a Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret clearance. If there are patterns of continued problems with substances, and/or repeated involvement of law enforcement, getting a clearance may not be possible.

    Status Counts

    The dangers of getting a DUI when trying to obtain or maintain a clearance are many, but one complicating factor is the nature of the person’s clearance who may be guilty of a DUI.

    Was the clearance only an interim security clearance good only until the results of an ongoing background check were reviewed and approved? It may be far easier to lose an interim clearance, depending on circumstances.

    On the other hand, it is never good to assume that a single incident is the end of your security clearance, since the review process is invested in the “whole person concept.”

    Even if you spent the night in jail as a result of a DUI incident, until the entire process has been played out and your actions after the fact can be reviewed, it’s simply not possible to know if you have lost an opportunity to keep or obtain a clearance.

    There Is No Single Answer

    As you can tell from the above, there are too many variables that can affect a DUI situation to say whether or not that incident is enough to ruin your chances at a security clearance or an upgraded clearance.

    Your conduct and attitude toward the incident is only part of the picture. If you can establish that you are indeed a good risk for a clearance in the wake of a negative event like a DUI, your chances improve greatly.

    Those who ignore the advice of their lawyers, refuse to hire a lawyer, or who are less than forthcoming about the facts in the case against them will find it much harder to get a second chance or even a fair hearing depending on circumstances.

    Unfortunately, getting a fair day in court or the clearance review process requires thinking holistically about your situation. It’s crucial to plan your response to a DUI charge with your security clearance needs in mind.

    That may mean volunteering to do rehab, community service, or other activities that show judges and background investigators alike that you are serious about moving on after an alcohol-related traffic stop or charge.

    Security Clearances: Subject To Review

    Just because a service member or civilian employee passes a security check the first time does not guarantee that level of clearance is awarded indefinitely. Or that another clearance review won’t happen for at least five years. The truth is, your clearance is always subject to being revoked, downgraded, or upgraded.

    Some security clearance investigations or reviews happen on a scheduled basis, but others may happen randomly, or if an incident forces the chain of command to review someone’s access.


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    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team