Punishment And Sentencing for DWI in North Carolina
As in every U.S. state, it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content at or above 0.08 percent in North Carolina. If you are younger than the legal drinking age of 21 (or drive a school bus or day care van), you can be found guilty of DWI with any detectible amount of alcohol in your blood.
Intoxication from alcohol is typically established per se (i.e., “in itself”) through breath- or blood-alcohol concentration tests. In North Carolina, the district attorney can also gain a guilty verdict by proving “appreciable impairment,” which could be shown through the arresting officer’s observations and professional opinion.
If police arrest you and find that you have a BAC of 0.08 percent — or 0.04 percent when younger than 21 or a commercial motor vehicle driver — the state will immediately suspend your license for 30 days.
If you refuse a breath test or blood test after a DWI arrest, you will immediately lose your driver’s license for one year. It may be possible to overturn that automatic one-year revocation in a separate hearing with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Our experienced DMV lawyers can help you with that administrative hearing as well.
Once a guilty verdict has been rendered, the judge in a DWI case will determine a sentence based on the case’s “aggravating factors,” “grossly aggravating factors,” or “mitigating factors.” These include:
Aggravating Factors for DWI Cases
- Gross impairment of the defendant’s faculties while driving, or a BAC of 0.15 percent or more within a relevant time after driving
- Especially reckless or dangerous driving at the time of the DWI offense
- Negligent driving that led to a reportable accident during the DWI offense
- Impaired driving by the defendant while his or her driver’s license was revoked
- Speeding while fleeing or attempting to elude apprehension for DWI
- Speeding at least 30 miles per hour over the legal limit during the DWI offense
- Passing a stopped North Carolina school bus
- Any other factor that aggravates the seriousness of the DWI offense
Grossly Aggravating Factors for DWI Cases
- A prior DWI conviction:
- Within seven years of the current offense; or
- Occurring after the date of the offense for which the defendant is being sentenced, prior to or simultaneously with the present sentencing
- Driving with a driver’s license having been revoked for a prior DWI
- Causing serious injury to another person through impaired driving at the time of the DWI offense (e.g., a drunk driving accident)
- Having a child younger than 16 years old in the vehicle at the time of the DWI offense
Mitigating Factors for DWI Cases (in the defendant’s favor)
- Slight impairment of the defendant’s faculties resulting solely from alcohol, and a BAC that did not exceed 0.09 percent at any relevant time after driving
- Slight impairment of the defendant’s faculties, resulting solely from alcohol, with no chemical analysis having been available to the defendant at the time of the DWI charge
- Driving that was safe and lawful at the time of arrest, except for the impairment of the defendant’s faculties
- A safe driving record
- Impairment of the defendant’s faculties that was caused primarily by a lawfully prescribed drug for an existing medical condition, with the amount of the drug taken being within the prescribed dosage
- The defendant’s voluntary submission to a mental health facility for an alcohol and drug abuse assessment after the current DWI charge and, if recommended by the facility, voluntary participation in the recommended DWI substance abuse treatment
North Carolina DWI Sentencing
With guilt and the above factors of the case in mind, the judge may impose a sentence that is based on the level of the crime.
Level V — Punishable by a fine up to $200 and can result in 24 hours to 60 days in jail. A judge can suspend the sentence once the driver has spent 24 hours in jail or performed 24 hours of community service.
Level IV — Punishable by a fine up to $500 and 48 hours to 120 days in jail. A judge can suspend the sentence once the driver has spent 48 hours in jail or performed 48 hours of community service.
Level III — Punishable by a fine up to $1,000 and 72 hours to 6 months in jail. A judge can suspend the sentence once the driver has spent 72 hours in jail or performed 72 hours of community service.
Level II — Punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and 7 days to 1 year in jail. A judge cannot suspend the minimum sentence of 7 days in jail.
Level I — Punishable by a fine up to $4,000 and 30 days to 2 years in jail. A judge cannot suspend the minimum sentence of 30 days.
Aggravated Level 1 or A1 — This punishment level is reserved for people with three or more aggravating factors. It was intended for repeat DWI convictions, but most often is handed out to a parent who is driving impaired with children in the car or young people driving their underage friends. Level A1 carries a potential fine of up to $10,000, a minimum sentence of 12 months in jail and up to 36 months. While that sentence may be suspended, the driver must serve at least 120 days in jail.
Is a DWI a Felony?
Drivers who have had three DWI convictions within the prior 10 years are considered habitual DWI offenders, and the current DWI offense is considered a felony. The Habitual DWI statute requires a minimum active jail term of 1 year, which cannot be suspended. Felony DWI offenders must also go through a substance abuse program while in jail or as a condition of parole. Under current law, people convicted of habitual DWI can never again be licensed to drive legally in North Carolina.
Driving Privilege Revocation After a DWI in NC
In addition to a monetary fine and a sentence, a DWI conviction results in revocation of North Carolina driving privileges.
Revocation is longer for each subsequent offense:
First DWI Offense — 1 year’s revocation if there are no prior DWI convictions within the last 3 years (based on arrest date).
Second DWI Offense — 4 years’ revocation for a second DWI conviction within 3 years. There is a possibility for a hearing to restore your license after 2 years if you have completed a DWI substance abuse program and have made significant changes in your lifestyle. These changes will have to be verified by witnesses at the hearing.
Third DWI Offense — Permanent loss of N.C. driver’s license for a third DWI if the two most recent convictions occurred within 5 years. After 5 years without a license, the DWI offender can request a hearing by the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles to reinstate the driver’s license.
Getting a Driver’s License Restored
Drivers convicted of DWI must complete a substance abuse assessment and comply with any recommended treatment as a condition for having their driver’s license restored at the end of the revocation period.
Driving with a Revoked License in North Carolina
If a court convicts you of DWI while driving with a revoked license due to a previous impaired driving offense, the judge can order the vehicle you were driving forfeited. The local school board can then sell the vehicle and keep or share the proceeds with other local school systems, or keep the car for its own use.
The law does allow vehicle owners to get their cars back if they were not the driver convicted of DWI, but only if they can show the court that they are an innocent party.