DWI in North Carolina

What is a DWI in North Carolina?

A DWI is an offense that arises when a person controls a motor vehicle while impaired by any substance. Substances here include alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and even prescription medication or anything a person consumes that can impair driving ability. North Carolina is a state with one of the strictest DWI laws in the country under the North Carolina General Statutes.

A reason why a person may get a DWI charge is for drunk driving, as the state has a drunk driving problem, with 354 deaths resulting from drunk driving accidents in 2016 alone. The courts in North Carolina also impose harsh penalties on drivers convicted of DWIs, especially for repeat offenses. The state bases the punishment of offenders on a sliding scale with five different levels of punishment. A conviction for this type of offense in North Carolina can result in a permanent North Carolina criminal record, jail time, and steep fines.

What is the Difference Between a DUI and a DWI in North Carolina?

Driving Under the Influence (DUI) is a legal term for impaired driving offenses in many states. For North Carolina, the proper term is Driving While Impaired (DWI). While most states interchange both terms, they mean the same thing in North Carolina because the Safe Roads Act of 1983 merged both crimes as a single offense.

It repealed all existing drunk driving laws in North Carolina, replacing them with “Driving While Impaired - DWI”. The North Carolina legal system uses DWI as the official acronym, and a DWI conviction implies that a driver operated a vehicle while impaired by a substance. A DUI strictly relates to drunk driving, as it revolves around the alcohol content in a driver’s blood, while a DWI expands the concept to mean a lot more.

The impairing substance in a DWI must not be alcohol, even though a rough interpretation of the acronym implies so. A person may get a DWI charge for narcotics and over-the-counter medications that are lawful. These legal drugs may cause drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, and a host of side effects that can affect a driver’s ability to drive safely.

North Carolina DWI Laws

NC GS Chapter 20 codifies the North Carolina DWI laws. Under § 20-138.1 of this chapter, a person commits the crime of impaired driving when driving a vehicle on an expressway, street, or public vehicular area within North Carolina while under the influence of an impairing substance. The crime arises when the motorist has an alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more after consuming substantial alcohol. A person commits a DWI offense in North Carolina if there is an amount of any controlled substance in the blood or urine of the motorist. The results of a chemical analysis serve as sufficient evidence to prove the motorist’s alcohol concentration.

The impaired driving offense also arises if the person drives a commercial vehicle under § 20-138.2. If a person drives a commercial car on a highway, street, or public area while under the effect of an impairing substance, the person commits a DWI. It arises where the person’s blood concentration is 0.04% or more after consuming a load of alcohol or showing traces of a controlled substance in their urine or blood.

Operating a commercial vehicle after taking alcohol also leads to a DWI under § 20-138.2A, and this offense is an implied-consent offense. However, only an alcohol screening test can prove a driver’s guilt as the mere odor of alcoholic beverage on the driver’s breath is insufficient evidence. If a driver keeps an alcoholic beverage in the passenger area while driving a commercial vehicle, such a driver commits a DWI under § 20-138.2C. The only defense that can arise here is if the vehicle is an excursion passenger vehicle, vehicle for hire, a motor home, or a common carrier for passengers, and the alcoholic beverage is with a passenger or in the passenger area of any of the vehicles so described.

A person below 21 may not drive a motor vehicle while consuming alcohol, under § 20-138.3. Suppose the person operates a car with a lawfully obtained controlled substance in the person’s blood. In that case, it is not an offense, as long as the person takes the substance in a therapeutically appropriate amount. The reason is that North Carolina is a “zero tolerance for intoxication under 21” state. So, any evidence of alcohol intoxication in a person under 21 can ground a conviction.

In North Carolina, a person who commits a traffic offense and gets a traffic ticket must attend a court hearing, unless it is a waivable offense like having a broken headlight. A DWI, for instance, demands a mandatory court hearing, and the court system reports final convictions to the NC Division of Motor Vehicles. Section 20-16 of the NC GC empowers the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles to assess points and take action against a driver’s license, like suspending the license for accumulating too many points. Interested persons may consult the North Carolina Driver’s Handbook for more information about driver’s license points and offenses that may result in suspensions.

DWI Penalties in North Carolina

Driving While Intoxicated is a misdemeanor in North Carolina, and there are five levels of DWI punishments under the NC GS 20-179:

Aggravated Level 1 DWI Punishment in North Carolina: The punishment for an aggravated level 1 DWI involves a maximum fine of $10,000 and between 12 months to 36 months in jail without the option of parole. However, the court may suspend the imprisonment term if the person serves at least 120 days in prison as a special probation condition, abstains from alcohol for at least 120 days to the maximum probation term, and obtains a substance abuse assessment and education or treatment. The punishment section allows for the release of a convict under this heading at least four months to the end of the sentence for supervision from the Section of Community Supervision of the Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice Division.

Level 1 DWI Punishment in North Carolina: A level one punishment subjects the motorist to a maximum fine of $4000 and a term of imprisonment between 30 days to 24 months. The judge may suspend the sentence on the condition of special probation that requires the person to serve at least 30 days of imprisonment. However, the judge may reduce the minimum term of at least ten days if there is a special probation condition for the defendant to abstain from alcohol consumption.

The probation condition must also make the person subject to a continuous alcohol monitoring system under the Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice Division of the Department of Public Safety for no less than 120 days. If the person undergoes up to 60 days of pretrial monitoring, it counts as a credit against the 120-day monitoring requirement. Apart from any other lawful probation condition, the judge may require a substance abuse assessment for purposes of restoring the motorist’s driver’s license.

Level 2 DWI Punishment in North Carolina: A person subject to a level 2 DWI punishment in North Carolina faces a maximum fine of $2000 and imprisonment between seven days to a year. The presiding judge may suspend the term of imprisonment if probation conditions require the individual to serve at least seven days of compulsory detention or to abstain from alcohol for at least 90 days. A continuous alcohol monitoring system from the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice of the Department of Public Safety verifies the individual’s compliance.

Level 3 DWI Punishment in North Carolina: Suppose a person gets a level 3 DWI punishment. In that case, the person may pay a maximum fine of $1,000 and an imprisonment term of between 72 hours and six months. For a judge to suspend the imprisonment, the person must spend 72 hours in prison as a condition for special probation, perform at least 72 hours of community service or do both. The judge may also make a substance abuse assessment a requirement for driver’s license restoration.

Level 4 DWI Punishment in North Carolina: The maximum fine for a level 4 DWI punishment in North Carolina is $500, and the imprisonment term spans between 48 hours and 120 days. The court may suspend the imprisonment term if the person spends 48 hours in prison as a condition of special probation or performs 48 hours of community service. Here also, the judge may demand a substance abuse assessment before approving the restoration of the person’s driver’s license.

Level 5 DWI Punishment in North Carolina: When a judge assigns a level 5 DWI punishment to an offender, such an offender may pay up to $200 in fines and face an imprisonment sentence of 24 hours to 60 days. The conditions for suspending the sentence are if the offender spends 24 hours in prison as a condition for special probation or carries out 24 hours of community service. The judge may also request a substance abuse assessment before restoring the person’s license.

What Happens When You Get a DUI in North Carolina?

There is no penalty for a DUI in North Carolina because the state’s laws do not recognize driving under the influence as a separate crime. A person charged with driving under the influence faces the same penalties and consequences ascribed to driving while impaired in the North Carolina General Statutes.

What Happens When You Get a DWI for the First Time in North Carolina?

When an officer stops a person on suspicion of impaired driving, the officer will request a field sobriety or breathalyzer test. If the test comes back positive, the officer may arrest the person and take the person to a holding cell at the nearest police station. Depending on the level of intoxication and surrounding circumstances, the person may spend up to 24 hours in prison. Next comes the citation or summons of a court date to answer the DWI charge.

If the court finds the person guilty, certain factors may increase or decrease the severity of the punishment, like irresponsible driving, driving with a revoked license, negligent driving, and more. Some factors that can reduce the severity of the offense are voluntary substance abuse treatment, entering a mental health facility, and having no previous record. The presiding judge has the discretion to determine the weight of any aggravating or mitigating factor concerning the person’s case.

A person that pleads guilty will face any of the levels of DWI punishments and the applicable fines. The law permits such a person to hire a lawyer to defend the charges. A reasonable attorney may convince or persuade the court to dismiss the charges or reduce the sentence.

What is the Penalty for a Second DWI in North Carolina?

A second DWI in North Carolina occurs within seven years of the first one, and North Carolina laws regard prior DWI offenses as aggravating factors. In practice, courts sentence such repeat offenders to Levels 1, 2, or 3 punishments due to the aggravating factor of a previous DWI conviction on record. Depending on the level, Penalties range from 72 hours to two years in jail and between $1000 to $4000 in fines. A level 1 or 2 conviction can lead to a 4-year license loss.

What Happens After a Third DUI in North Carolina?

Three DWIs in ten years make a person a habitual DWI offender under NC GS 20-138.5(a). It is a Class F felony that attracts a minimum of 12 months imprisonment, and the court may not suspend the sentence. A convict under this heading also faces permanent license revocation and forfeiture of the vehicle. The only exceptions are where the convict does not own the car, and the car owner did not know or has no way of knowing that the person has had three or more impaired driving offenses within the past seven years. If the convict drove the car without the owner’s permission, it also serves as a defense against forfeiture.

How Long Does a DWI Stay on Your Record in North Carolina?

In North Carolina, there is a seven-year lookback period for misdemeanor DWI offenses and ten years for felony offenses. It means that if a person commits any further DWI offense within that time frame, the law considers it a second offense that attracts more severe fines and jail time. The criminal record can make traveling difficult and restrict the jobs that the person can apply for in North Carolina.

North Carolina DWI convictions stay on background records forever, and as these are public records, employers, neighbors, and even landlords can pull up these records and see the DWI conviction. Expungement only applies to charges that did not result in a sentence. It removes the record from public view, preventing the public and possible employers from seeing it. The courts and law enforcement officers still have access to expunged records. Presently, there is no way to get rid of a DWI conviction in North Carolina.

DWI Expungement in North Carolina

The North Carolina General Statutes in § 15A-146 allows the expungement of dismissed and “not guilty” DWI charges in North Carolina. Before 2015, individuals could remove DWI convictions from appearing on criminal records, but a 2015 amendment makes that impossible to do now. Also, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 562, or the “Second Chance Act,” in June 2020.

Under the act, there will be an automatic expunction of dismissed or “not guilty” cases effective from December 1, 2021. Still, cases heard before will go through a petition process to get those records expunged at court. Upon expunction, the court shall direct law enforcement agencies, the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice of the Department of Public Safety, the Division of Motor Vehicles, and any other State or local government agencies having such records to delete the entries.

How Likely is Jail Time After a First DWI in North Carolina?

Yes, jail time after a first DWI in North Carolina is very likely. The reason is that the North Carolina laws provide for specific jail terms for first offense DWIs. For the least severe offense classification, level 5, the minimum jail sentence is 24 hours. It may increase to more than that, depending on the punishment level and the judge’s discretion.

What is the Average Cost of DWI in North Carolina?

An officer arresting a person for a DWI will order the towing of the vehicle to a storage facility which attracts daily storage fees, which can cost up to $100. The compulsory substance abuse assessment cost is around $110, while the substance abuse classes range from $150 to $3,200 or more, depending on the duration. A person that wants limited driving privileges after the license revocation will pay about $104 in court filing fees and a $100 restoration fee, allowing the person to use the suspended license pending the determination of the suit.

Attorney fees start from about $2,500 and can climb to $10,000, depending on the attorney’s expertise. Court-mandated ignition interlock devices cost between $2,000 to $3,000 to install and a monthly maintenance fee of $50 to $100. If the court allows for supervised probation, the individual will have to pay supervised probation fees ranging from $1,000 to $2,000.

How Much is Bail for a DWI in North Carolina?

The bail amount for a DWI in North Carolina depends on the seriousness of the crime, past criminal record, and others. A judge may set bail for a DWI in North Carolina at $500 or even up to $5000. In cases involving death or significant physical harm, the bail amount may climb higher. First offenders, in most cases, do not need to post bail, as such persons often get out on recognizance or a written agreement to return for court. The judge will determine the bail amount and conditions for a more severe offender based on several aggravating and mitigating factors.

How to Get My License Back After a DWI in North Carolina?

In North Carolina, a person may get a revoked license for violating traffic laws or committing a DWI offense. For an offender to initiate the reinstatement process in North Carolina, such a person must first satisfy the suspension or revocation requirements. Then, the person shall pay a $140.25 DWI reinstatement fee, a $70 restoration fee, and a $50 service fee. The Department of Motor Vehicles encourages applicants to confirm the amounts before making payment through the number: (919) 707-4275.

After confirmation, the applicant can pay online through MoneyGram or in person at any MoneyGram location. To pay online through MoneyGram, the person must first visit the official MoneyGram website and enter 18857 when it asks for “biller or inmate facility”. Click on the NC DMV Driver License Restoration (18857) that pops up next and hit “enter”.

Next, click on “pay bill,” enter the due amount and click “pay this biller”. Choose a payment option like a debit or credit card and click “next”. Once received, the payment takes 24 hours to process, and the person’s status will show “inactive” and only turns “active ” when the person gets a North Carolina driving license. Individuals may also make payments in person at any North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles Driver License Office with a prior appointment. Also, interested individuals can pay with a check or money order to:

N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles
Fiscal Unit
P.O. Box 29615
Raleigh, NC 27626-0615

The mailed payments must contain the full name of the applicant, driver’s license/ID number, and date of birth.

How Does a DUI Affect Your Life in North Carolina?

Having a DWI conviction in North Carolina leaves a black mark on a person’s record and is a liability that can affect a person’s effort to make progress in life. A convicted person faces both statutory and collateral consequences in North Carolina that will affect the personal and professional life of the person. It harms future employment opportunities, as many prospective employers ask about convictions and confirm a background check.

A DWI conviction can also hinder a person from receiving a professional license or certification from a state or federal licensing board. As North Carolina is a “zero tolerance” state for underage drinking offenses, high school students can face suspension or more severe penalties at school. The conviction also prevents a student from receiving financial aid or scholarships, and if the student already has a running academic or professional scholarship, the student can lose it.

Can You Get Fired for a DUI in North Carolina?

Since North Carolina is an employment “at-will” state, a person can get fired for a DWI or other criminal arrest. The company’s employee handbook or policy may require the employee to notify the company upon the arrest. The company should find out from the employee and not a third party. If the job conditions require driving, it can result in an automatic termination due to the license suspension or revocation.

Some professions require professional licensing, clearance, or certification, and a conviction can affect it. For example, the North Carolina Medical Board, Board of Nursing, Board of Barber Examiners can revoke a person’s license to practice. It also affects drivers with a commercial license, pilots, air traffic controllers, and government employees.

How Do I Find DWI Checkpoints in North Carolina?

North Carolina is one of the states that allow for sobriety checkpoints, and NC GS 20-16.3A enables it to set up these checkpoints. These sobriety or DWI checkpoints empower police officers to stop motorists at random and determine if the motorists are under the influence of alcohol or any other substance. Sobriety tests follow reasonable suspicion that a person is driving while intoxicated.

However, these roadblocks must follow specific guidelines to have legal backing, like making the roadblock visible with flashing lights at the checkpoints. Persons who want to find DWI checkpoint locations may consult online directories and third-party sites.

Which Is Worse, DUI vs. DWI?

Because North Carolina makes no distinction between a DUI and DWI, it is impossible to say which one is worse. Before 1983, DUI and DWI were separate charges, and North Carolina laws considered DUI a lower offense than a DWI. The Safe Roads Act of 1983 has now collapsed both into the same crime, leaving no room for distinctions.