Driving While Impaired, or DWI

DWI in North Carolina means the driving of a vehicle on any public road or area while being under the influence of an impairing substance. Most of the time, the impairing substance is alcohol. However, an impairing substance is anything that noticeably affects a person’s physical or mental state. This includes prescription medications.


In North Carolina, it is illegal to drive if your alcohol concentration is .08 or higher.  An alcohol concentration of .08 means that .08% of a person’s blood, by volume, is alcohol.  A person’s blood alcohol level varies according to whether the person is male or female, how much he or she weighs, and how much time has passed while consuming the alcohol.  However, someone that has only had a few beers (2-3) to drink in an hour could be dangerously close to being over the legal limit.  Therefore, it is best not to drive if you have had anything to drink.

Most drivers receive a DWI after they have been stopped for another traffic offense such as speeding, weaving, running a red light, or having tags expired.  It is only after the driver has been stopped that the police officer will suspect that the driver has been drinking. 

How police determine if a driver is impaired

When police officers suspect that a driver has been drinking, they generally look for signs of intoxication including the following:
• red, glassy, bloodshot eyes
• odor of alcohol on the breath
• slurred speech
• signs of confusion like not knowing what street they were driving on
• weaving in and out of their lane while driving
• driving too slow or too fast

If a police officer suspects that a driver is driving while under the influence, the officer will generally ask that the driver complete one or more “field sobriety tests.”  These are short mental and/or physical tasks that a driver is asked to complete usually in a safe place on the side of the road or wherever the driver has been stopped.  Examples of these tests include standing on one foot while counting to 30, walking on a straight line correctly, or holding out his arm and touching his nose.  Failure to pass these tests can be used in court against the driver as evidence of intoxication.

Police officers might also ask that the driver do a breathalyzer test where the stop took place or back at the police station.  This requires the driver to blow into a machine that will calculate blood alcohol content.  If a driver refuses to do the breathalyzer test, officers may administer a blood test to check the driver’s alcohol level.  If an officer orders a blood test, the driver may not refuse it.  The refusal of the breathalyzer test can be used in court, along with other evidence, against the driver to prove that the driver was intoxicated.  Most importantly, any driver that refuses a breathalyzer test will have his license revoked for one year automatically. 

Consequences of Being Convicted of Driving While Impaired (DWI)

After being charged with a DWI, it is advisable that you hire an attorney to handle your case because of the seriousness of the charge and because you face possible jail time.  Most of the time, people charged with DWI plead guilty because NC law is so strict on DWI cases.  However, your attorney may choose to take your case to trial in certain circumstances, for example, if your attorney believes that the arresting officer did something against protocol.  If taken to trial, a judge will hear all the evidence in your case and find you guilty or dismiss the case.  The State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were appreciably impaired.

Also with a charge of DWI comes an automatic revocation of your driver’s license for 30 days.  After 10 days, you may be eligible for a limiting driving privilege for the remainder of the 30 days.  You must complete a Substance Abuse Assessment which costs $50 prior to applying for the limited driving privilege. 

A DWI conviction is a misdemeanor.  Once you have been convicted of a DWI, a judge will place you in one of five levels of punishment.  Fines and possible jail time, community service hours and other punishments will vary according to what level the judge places you in.  Level One is the most serious and is used for people that have had more than one DWI in the past 7 years, who were driving with a child less than 16 years of age in the car, or who caused serious bodily injury by driving while impaired.  Most first-time offenders fall under Level Five which is the least serious if they cooperated with the police, there was no car accident at the time of the arrest, and they registered between .08 and .12 on the breathalyzer. 

Costs for being convicted of a DWI include $100.00 for court costs, a fine up to $200.00 for a Level Five offender, a $50.00 alcohol assessment fee, a $50.00 license restoration fee and a community service fee of $200.00. You will also have to pay attorney fees if you choose to hire an attorney.  A DWI conviction carries 12 insurance points, so an increase of up to 450% on your insurance premium will occur (about 4 times what you had been paying) which will remain in effect for 3 years.  Level Five offenders usually must also complete 24 hours of community service within 30 days.

Level Five offenders, the least serious level, must also surrender their license to the DMV for one year.  You may be eligible for a limited driving privilege.  A limited driving privilege will allow you to drive Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. but only for work, community service, court-ordered treatment and school.  If you have a limited driving privilege and you are caught driving outside these limitations, or you are driving with any alcohol in your system, you will lose the limited driving privilege and you will be charged with driving while license revoked.  Being convicted of driving while license revoked will extend your license revocation period, cost you more money, and may include other punishments as well such as jail time, more community service, alcohol treatment programs or probation.

Blowing over a .16 on the breathalyzer requires an additional punishment of having an ignition interlock system installed in your vehicle at a cost of several hundred dollars and a monthly monitoring fee. 

Repeat Offenders

Any driver that has received 3 DWIs in a 10 year time span will be charged with a Class F felony on the 4th DWI conviction.  This is called “habitual impaired driving” and results in a minimum of one year in prison and a lifetime suspension of your driver license.

Drivers Under 21 Years of Age

It is illegal for any driver who is under 21 years of age to drive in NC with any alcohol in their system.  If any trace of alcohol is found in their system, they will be charged with a DWI and punished as explained above.


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