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If you’ve been charged with drunk driving, you may be wondering what happens next or how to navigate the charges against you. Find out the differences among drunk driving charges, what the acronyms mean, and when you’ll need a DWI lawyer.

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What Is A DWI?

The acronym means either “driving while intoxicated” or “driving while impaired.” A DWI charge means you were caught operating a vehicle while impaired by drugs, alcohol, or even drowsiness, or with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or higher (the “per se” legal limit). The legal BAC limit drops for underage drivers in many states and for commercial drivers in every state.

Is DWI The Same As DUI?

You may be more familiar with the term DUI, which means ‘driving under the influence.’ Depending on the state, there may be a difference between the two terms, legally speaking. Unfortunately, there is not a nationwide standard for how to label drunk driving charges.

What States Have DWI Charges?

Some states call drunk driving charges DUIs, some call them DWIs, and some use other acronyms (“OUI”–operating under the influence–in Connecticut, for example). The differences can be confusing–for example, the District of Columbia considers DWI a more severe charge than DUI, but Maryland considers DWI a lesser charge than DUI. The following states use the label DWI for drunk or drugged driving charges:

  • Arkansas. Driving While Intoxicated (drugs and alcohol) and Driving Under the Influence (alcohol)
  • Colorado. Driving While Ability Impaired (DWAI) and Driving Under the Influence used interchangeably
  • District of Columbia. Driving While Intoxicated where BAC is higher than legal limit, and Driving Under the Influence for BACs of .07 or lower
  • Kentucky. Driving While Intoxicated and Driving Under the Influence used interchangeably
  • Louisiana. Driving While Intoxicated and Driving Under the Influence used interchangeably
  • Maryland. Driving While Impaired by Alcohol is a lesser charge than Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol
  • Minnesota. Driving While Impaired
  • Missouri. Driving While Intoxicated
  • New Hampshire. Driving While Intoxicated
  • New Jersey. Driving While Intoxicated
  • New Mexico. Driving While Intoxicated
  • New York. Driving While Intoxicated where BAC is higher than legal limit, and Driving While Ability Impaired (DWAI) for lower BAC or drugs
  • North Carolina. Driving While Intoxicated
  • Oklahoma. Driving While Impaired for BAC lower than legal limit, and Driving Under the Influence for BAC at or over legal limit
  • Texas. Driving While Under the Influence

How To Know If You Need A DWI Lawyer

Being charged with drunk driving can have serious consequences. Impaired driving puts others at risk of harm. It can also cost you a lot of money. Costs associated with drunk driving charges, besides attorney costs, include:

  • Court fines ranging from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars
  • License reinstatement fees, which can be hundreds of dollars
  • Bail bond fees
  • State surcharges
  • Car towing fees
  • Mandated alcohol education fees
  • Higher auto insurance fees

Most of these fees only apply if you’ve been convicted of driving impaired. It may be worth your money to hire a DWI lawyer right away after being charged. If an attorney can help you get your penalties reduced or avoid a conviction altogether, it could save you a lot of money.

Drunk driving charges can also result in jail time, substantial community service requirements, and lengthy license suspensions. Serving time in jail or not being able to drive could land you in trouble at work or with other obligations.

There can be ‘aggravating factors’ to an impaired driving charge, such as whether it is a second or third offense, whether you caused vehicular or bodily damage, or whether you refused a BAC test. Impaired driving is a complex area of law that you should not try to navigate alone.

How To Choose A DWI Lawyer

There are two avenues to being represented in your drunk driving case: hiring a private attorney or asking for a public defender. A benefit to hiring a private attorney is they will typically spend as much time as necessary on your case, while a public defender may be overburdened with many different defendants at once. However, a public defender may know the court system a little better than a private attorney.

Hiring A Private Attorney

If you can afford to hire a private attorney, it’s best to hire one with experience in drunk driving cases. Many DWI attorneys may represent you for a flat fee, generally ranging up to a few thousand dollars. Given the costs associated with being convicted of drunk driving, you may find it’s worth the money to pay an experienced lawyer to help you. Some may offer payment plans to make the cost more palatable. Make sure any contract you sign is crystal clear about your payment terms.

You should also choose a local lawyer who has practiced in the court where your case is being handled, as they will know what to expect. You can shop around by using free consultations offered by many attorneys, as well as looking at online reviews from previous clients.

Asking For A Public Defender

Because drunk driving cases are criminal cases, you are entitled to a public defender at no cost to you if you want one. You can ask for a public defender at any point before or after being charged, and the court will begin the process of assigning one to you. Public defenders may have a lot of defendants assigned to them at once, but will be familiar with the local court system.

No matter how your state labels drunk driving, getting connected with an experienced attorney can provide a roadmap for navigating the charges.

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.

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