When police arrest you for Driving While Impaired (DWI) in North Carolina, you may be confused by the complicated process. There are administrative proceedings that impact your driving privileges. This includes automatic, temporary, or permanent suspension of your license. Drunk driving is also a crime in North Carolina, so the criminal court will hear your case and you will be up against a skilled prosecuting attorney. A conviction could mean fines, probation, and possible jail time in certain cases. You will need an experienced DWI defense attorney to represent you and achieve the best possible outcome.
DWI Criminal Proceedings
A DWI arrest is both administrative and criminal in nature, so there are two separate cases and two sets of penalties you face. This does not necessarily mean you will have two cases. The Civil Penalty will depend on the outcome of the criminal case.
If convicted of a DWI crime, a judge will hold a hearing to determine whether there are factors that affect the details of the sentence, and group those factors in the following three categories:
Factors classified as “aggravating” increase the serious of the offense and guidelines for sentencing, though they are not as “grossly aggravating factors” described in the next section. Aggravating factors include, but are not limited to:
- Total or near-total Impairment of the defendant’s faculties while driving, or BAC of 0.16 or more within a relevant time after driving.
- Reckless or dangerous driving during a DWI offense.
- Negligent driving that led to a reportable accident during.
- Driving by the defendant while their driving license was revoked for reasons other than DWI (driving with a license revoked due to DWI can be a grossly aggravating factor).
- Two or more prior convictions of a motor vehicle offense not involving DWI, for which:
- At least 3 or more points were assigned; OR
- Their license was subject to revocation if prior conviction occurred within 5 years of the current offense; OR
- One or more prior convictions involving impaired driving occurred more than 7 years before the date of the current offense.
- A conviction of speeding while fleeing or attempting to elude law enforcement during a DWI arrest.
- A conviction of speeding at least 30 miles per hour over the legal limit during a DWI offense.
- Passing a stopped North Carolina school bus during a DWI offense.
Grossly Aggravating Factors
These are considered the most serious conditions that can occur in a DWI arrest. They include:
- A prior conviction for a DWI offense, if:
- The prior DWI conviction occurred within seven years before the date of the current offense; OR
- The prior DWI conviction was for a DWI that occurred after the date of the current offense the defendant is being sentenced for.
- The defendant committed a DWI while their driver’s license was revoked for impaired driving.
- The defendant caused serious injury to another person due to their impaired driving.
- The defendant was driving while impaired while a child under the age of 18, or a person older than 18 but with a mental capacity of somebody under the age of 18 was present in the vehicle at the time.
- The defendant was driving while impaired while a person with a physical disability preventing them from exiting the vehicle unaided was in the vehicle at the time.
Mitigating factors are the circumstances that are in your favor to “mitigate” or reduce the seriousness of the DWI offense and lessen the level of punishment you can receive. They include:
- Slight impairment of the defendant’s faculties resulting solely from alcohol, and a BAC that did not exceed 0.09 at any relevant time after driving.
- No chemical analysis was available to the defendant at the time of the DWI charge, given only slight impairment of their faculties.
- Driving, at the time of the DWI offense, that was otherwise safe and lawful except for the driver’s impairment.
- A safe driving record, with no prior conviction for nay motor vehicle offense for which at least 4 points are assigned, or for which their license would have been subject to revocation within 5 years of the date of the current DWI offense.
- Impairment caused primarily by lawfully prescribed drug(s) for an existing medical condition, and the amount of the drug taken was within the prescribed dosage.
- The defendant voluntarily submitted to a mental health facility for DWI alcohol and drug abuse assessment after being charged for a DWI offense, and, if applicable, voluntary participation in the recommended DWI substance abuse treatment or therapy.
The sentencing structure falls into different levels, from least to most serious:
- Level 5: Typically reserved for first-time offenders with only mitigating factors and no aggravating factors. Fine up to $200, plus a minimum jail sentence of 24 hours and maximum incarceration of 60 days.
- Level 4: Imposed when mitigating factors are judged to outweigh aggravating factors. Maximum fine of $500, with a minimum 48 hours in jail and maximum up to 120 days.
- Level 3: Imposed when mitigating and aggravating factors are judged to balance out. Fine up to $1,000, plus a minimum incarceration of 72 hours and maximum jail time of six months.
- Level 2: Imposed if the judge determines one grossly aggravating factor was involved, regardless of mitigating and non-gross aggravating factors. Maximum fine of $2,000, along with minimum jail time of seven days and maximum of a year.
- Level 1: Imposed when the judge determines two grossly aggravating factors were present. The maximum fine reaches $4,000, with jail time at a minimum sentence of 30 days and maximum of two years.
- Aggravated Level 1: Imposed when the judge determines there were 3 or more grossly aggravating factors. Maximum of $10,000 with jail time at a minimum of twelve months and a maximum of thirty-six months.
With Levels 5 – 3, a judge may suspend the sentence upon completion of a designated number of community service hours. You may also not operate a vehicle for a certain amount of time, though a judge may grant limited driving privileges for going to work or school. The court cannot issue a suspension of sentencing under Level 1 or Level 2 convictions.
Administrative Proceedings and Other Consequences
Your driver’s license is the subject of punishment under the administrative component of a DWI case. This punishment is subject to the number of times you have committed a DWI offense prior:
Consequences Based on Prior Convictions
- First Time Offender: If you have no prior DWI convictions in the last 3 years of (of an arrest, not conviction), you will face a license suspension for one year.
- Second Time Offender: If you had a prior DWI conviction in the last 3 years, you would face a four-year suspension of your driver’s license. You may have the opportunity to restore your license after 2 years if you have completed a DWI substance abuse program and made significant changes in your lifestyle that can be verified by witnesses at a DWI hearing.
- Third Time Offender: Three DWI offenses within 10 years, and the last 2 having occurred within 5 years will result in permanent loss of your driver’s license. After 5 years, you may be able to request a hearing to reinstate your license.
- Habitual Impaired Driving: If you are arrested for a fourth DWI charge within 10 years, you will be charged with a Class F felony called “Habitual Impaired Driving”. This charge is very serious and can result in harsh mandatory penalties including:
- permanent revocation of your driver’s license with no option to reinstate.
- Mandatory one-year prison sentence without right to appeal
- Forfeiture of your vehicle.
Additionally, as the charge is a felony, you can face other long-lasting penalties such as loss of right to vote during sentence, being barred from holding public office, and losing other citizenship rights.
Other Consequences of DWI Conviction
There are additional direct and indirect consequences that impact your life after a conviction for drunk driving in North Carolina.
- An employer can run a background check on you when you apply for a job. As a result, they might see the DWI conviction and hold it against you. If you hope to get a job that requires that you drive, then a DWI could prevent you from even getting hired. Some cities, like Durham and Charlotte, have banned employers from asking about convictions, but most cities and towns have not.
- A landlord might run a background check on you before agreeing to rent you an apartment. If so, the landlord will probably see the DWI, which they might hold against you.
- The Court may order you to install an Ignition Interlock Device (IID) on your vehicle when you get your license back. The IID prevents your vehicle’s engine from starting if it detects alcohol when you blow into it.
- Your car insurance rates are likely to skyrocket. Most insurers consider a person with a DWI conviction to be high-risk.
- With a DWI conviction, punishments for subsequent offenses will be more severe.
- Criminal convictions might make it difficult for you to obtain professional licenses in the future.
Given the above consequences, you should think twice about accepting level 4-5 DWI charges simply because they involve smaller fines and minimal jail time. Because of these consequences, you should seriously consider hiring a North Carolina criminal defense attorney to review your case and determine whether you have defenses to the charge.
Why Choose Tarlton | Polk?
With these serious penalties on the line, it’s critical to hire an experienced attorney. The DWI Lawyers at Tarlton Polk Law have extensive training in drunk driving cases. Our team has tried over 500 DWI cases in Wake County District Court, as well as trying numerous jury trials in Superior Court. Brad Polk and Raymond Tarlton learned their criminal trial skills first as prosecutors. Now, they apply these talents to represent defendants facing drunk driving charges. They frequently help clients achieve dismissals and acquittals.
In addition to the knowledge that comes from litigating so many cases, our lawyers have also received extensive training, including:
- Completion of courses on detecting impaired drivers, presented by North Carolina agencies.
- Attendance at a 2009 regional DWI course for law enforcement officers and prosecutors. Part of the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program.
- Instruction on the same standardized field sobriety tests law enforcement agencies use during their investigations.
- Work with North Carolina’s Forensic Tests for Alcohol Branch related to the instrumentation used to measure a suspect’s BAC.
- Individual instruction on the state’s Intox EC/IR II device used to measure BAC. This includes training on the absorption, distribution, and elimination of alcohol in the body. It also covers the scientific principles behind the technology.
Whether you’re facing your first DWI or you are facing serious felony DWI charges, our criminal defense lawyers are the litigators you need on your side. Brad and Raymond need to review your case to provide specific details on your circumstances.