Imagine this: you’ve just left your office’s holiday party or a friend’s house after watching the big game on television. You had “a few”, but believe you are in an acceptable state to drive. Suddenly, you see red and blue lights in the rear-view mirror. The police officer tells you that you were observed weaving within your lane and it’s all downhill from there. Hours later, you’re bonding out of jail disheveled and bewildered. “I thought I was acting responsibly; how did this happen?”, you wonder.

What I’ve described above is an unfortunate but all-too-common scenario – one that I saw frequently while serving as a police officer and certified DUI expert many years ago. While we’re all responsible for monitoring our own alcohol consumption and knowing our own limits, I witnessed a lot of good people get tangled up in the criminal justice system simply because they reasonably misjudged[1].

When that happens, it’s natural to be confused about a scary and foreign process. What I see these days, however, is that people fail to ask questions during their arrest and prosecution, leaving them with a false impression of what actually transpired that then causes needless problems with their security clearance.

Two Common DUI Misconceptions

The two most common examples are misunderstanding the nature of court-mandated first-time DUI offender classes, and failing to accurately report on their SF-86 form the correct offense for which they were arrested.

For the former, most states mandate first-time offender courses that are purely educational in nature: classroom-style sessions designed to demonstrate the impact of alcohol on bodily functions and show the consequences of drinking and driving. These types of courses usually do not have a diagnostic or counseling component and thus they are not considered “treatment” within the meaning of the SF-86.

Nonetheless, many clearance holders mistakenly think otherwise and report first-time offender classes as alcohol abuse “treatment”, creating the erroneous perception that they have an addiction to alcohol or, at minimum, a problem with controlling their intake. The facts eventually get sorted out, but not after added time, headaches, and the possible denial of an interim security clearance – all of which could possibly have been avoided.

In the case of the charge(s) itself, many security clearance holders wind up pleading their first-time DUI arrest down to a lesser count like “wet reckless” or even obtain something like “probation before judgment.” Understand, however, that the SF-86 form explicitly asks for “arrests”. Failure to list the DUI appropriately (or self-report it accurately to security officials between regularly scheduled re-investigations) can create the perception that you are attempting to hide the issue or minimize it, which reflects poorly on both integrity and candor – the foundations of a security clearance.

Here is the bottom line: if you have (or had) the misfortune of a DUI arrest, it isn’t necessarily a security clearance killer – especially if it was a first-time offense and your Blood Alcohol Content was within the realm of reasonableness. But take the time to ask questions and educate yourself on precisely what transpired in your case. Understanding a bit of legal terminology and having a candid conversation with a court official or your defense attorney can go a long way toward avoiding misconceptions and the security clearance problems they inevitably cause.


[1] To be clear, if your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) was multiples of the legal limit, or if you have a history of prior DUI’s or other alcohol-related incidents, that’s something else entirely. I’m talking about the person with no priors, no history of excessive consumption, and no “you shouldn’t be driving” warnings from friends or colleagues. These people constitute a fairly large segment of DUI arrestees, demonstrating just how easy it is to inadvertently exceed the legal limit.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials, revocations, and the security clearance application process. He is a former investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management). For more information, please visit Readers will also find a low-cost, self-help option for obtaining copies of their security clearance background investigations and DISS/Scattered Castles records at