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Preventing drunk driving, or driving while impaired (DWI), is an important goal for states across the country. The U.S. Department of Transportation found that 30 percent of traffic fatalities involved drunk driving and that one person dies every 45 minutes in the U.S. in an alcohol/drug-related crash. North Carolina (NC) has enacted some of the strictest driving policies to reduce drunk driving. Here, we examine DWI in NC and discuss what you need to know about the laws.
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What Is A DWI In NC?
Most people think of alcohol when they hear the term DWI. In NC, a DWI is considered driving while under the influence of alcohol or an impairing substance like drugs. The drugs can be illegal (cocaine, marijuana) or legal (prescription or over-the-counter).
In addition, if the impairing substance is alcohol, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) must be 0.08 percent or higher (or 0.04 percent for commercial vehicle drivers) for drivers over the age of 21 to be classified as driving while impaired. Drivers under the age of 21 can be found guilty of a DWI regardless of the BAC.
You can also be charged with a DWI in NC if you’re found “operating a vehicle,” even if you aren’t actually driving. You only need to have “actual physical control” of the car while under the influence. For example, if you’re behind the wheel (even if the car is parked) while the engine is running, you’re awake, or the keys are in the ignition, you may be found guilty of DWI.
DWI Vs. DUI In NC
The terms DWI and DUI (driving under the influence) are often used interchangeably. However, depending on the state, they may refer to different types of crimes. In NC, DUI and DWI used to be separate crimes but in the 1980s, the state combined the meanings. Now, North Carolina uses DWI for offenses committed while driving while impaired with any substance that impairs the ability to drive safely.
North Carolina follows a “zero tolerance policy” meaning that a penalty is automatically imposed for any infraction. In fact, the Tarheel state is so strict about driving while impaired, you can get active jail time even if it’s your first offense.
In addition, NC DUI law follows a complex process of sentencing offenders and assigning penalties.
Penalties For DWI In NC
While having a DWI on your record will most likely cause your car insurance rates to increase and points added your license, the penalties in NC may also include:
- Suspension or revocation of driver’s license
- Monetary fines
- Jail time
- Enrollment in substance abuse treatment
- Community service
- Seizure of vehicle
After a conviction, the court will hold a sentencing hearing where a judge will consider factors to determine what level of punishment is required. Because the process is so complicated, you might want to take a look at the law yourself.
Sentencing Factors For DWI In NC
At the sentencing hearing, the defense (you) and prosecution will submit aggravating or mitigating factors for the judge to consider. The factors a judge may consider include:
Grossly Aggravating Factors
- The defendant has a prior DWI conviction in the last seven years
- The defendant’s license has been previously revoked because of a DWI
- The defendant’s current DWI caused “serious injury” to another person
- The defendant was driving with a minor, an adult with the mental capacity of a minor, or a person with a physical disability
- The defendant had a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher
- The defendant showed reckless driving
- The defendant caused an accident
- The defendant has two or more prior traffic violations that caused three points or more on their driver’s license
- The defendant was driving 30 miles or more over the speed limit
- The defendant passed a stopped school bus
- The defendant has a prior conviction of eluding police
- The defendant has a BAC of 0.09 percent or lower
- The defendant had a prescription for the impairing drug
- The defendant was driving safely
- The defendant had a mental health screening
- The defendant completed treatment or 60 days of sobriety
Levels Of Misdemeanor DWI
There are multiple levels of sentencing for a DWI in NC. Level One is the most serious and Level Five is the least.
Aggravated Level One
If the driver has three or more gross aggravating factors, penalties include:
- Fine up to $10,000
- 12-36 months in jail
- Exception: If the judge grants special probation, driver must serve at least 120 days in jail, submit to substance monitoring, and complete a drug and alcohol assessment and treatment program
If the driver has two or more gross aggravating factors or had minor passenger, penalties include:
- Fine up to $4,000
- 30 days to 24 months in jail
- Exception: If the judge grants special probation, the driver must spend 30 days in jail: If driver submits to substance monitoring for four months and completes a drug and alcohol assessment and treatment program, the judge may reduce jail time to minimum of 10 days
If driver has one gross aggravating factor, penalties include:
- Fine up to $2,000
- Seven days to 12 months in jail
- Exception: If the judge grants special probation, the driver may spend seven days in jail if they submit to substance monitoring for 90 days and complete a drug and alcohol assessment and treatment program (A driver with a prior DWI within five years must also complete 240 hours of community service and treatment program)
If there are no gross aggravating factors, but a higher number of aggravating factors than mitigating factors, penalties include:
- Fine up to $1,000
- 72 hours to six months in jail
- Exception: If the judge grants special probation, driver must complete drug and alcohol assessment and treatment and spend either 72 hours in jail or do 72 hours of community service
If there are no gross aggravating factors, but the aggravating and mitigating factors are approximately equal, penalties include:
- Fine up to $500
- 48 hours to 120 days in jail
- Exception: If the judge grants special probation, driver must complete drug and alcohol assessment and treatment and spend either 48 hours in jail or do 48 hours of community service
If there are no gross aggravating factors, but the number of mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors, penalties include:
- Fine up to $200
- 24 hours to 60 days in jail
- Exception: If the judge grants special probation, driver must complete drug and alcohol assessment and treatment and spend either 24 hours in jail or do 24 hours of community service
Other DWI In NC Penalties
North Carolina is serious about the safety of its citizens. Here are a few more DWI penalties you should be aware of:
If the driver has four DWI convictions within the past 10 years, they are considered a habitual offender, with the fourth charge being a felony. Under NC law, drivers who commit felony DWI must serve a minimum of one year in jail and participate in a substance abuse program.
Refusing A BAC Test
If the driver refuses an intoxilyzer test, there is an immediate revocation of the driver’s license for at least 30 days.
Penalties for a guilty verdict of DWI include having an ignition interlock device installed, and:
- For the first offense, the driver’s license is revoked for one year. After one year, driver must complete treatment in order to get driver’s license back
- For second offense within three years, the driver’s license is revoked for four years
- For third offense, the driver’s license is revoked permanently
Note that even if the driver is found not guilty of a DWI, they will still get their license revoked for one year for refusing to take the intoxilyzer test.
Due to North Carolina’s zero tolerance policy, all minors who are found driving with any amount of alcohol or illegal drugs in their system from a BAC analysis may be convicted of a class two misdemeanor. Minors will also have their driver’s license immediately revoked for 30 days.
North Carolina DUI laws mandate that minors who refuse a BAC test may still be convicted of a DWI if the officer smells alcohol on the minor’s breath. In this case, drivers will have their license revoked for one year, be fined up to $1,000, and may spend up to 60 days in jail.
Still Need Help Understanding NC DWI Laws?
The laws for a DWI in NC are multifaceted and must be thoroughly understood in order to know your rights and the consequences you may face. An experienced attorney can help, so get an evaluation today.
Legal Disclaimer: This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation and should not be interpreted as creating an attorney-client relationship. If you have legal questions, you should seek the advice of an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.
Interested in learning more about DWI laws throughout the U.S.? Click the links below for insight from the Lifehacker Advisor Legal Team