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DWI vs DUI North Carolina

Distinction Between DUI and DWI

DUI designates driving under the influence, while DWI refers to driving while intoxicated.  However, North Carolina’s Safe Roads Act of 1983 repealed previous laws on drunk driving and placed all drug and alcohol related driving laws under a single offense, which is driving while impaired (DWI).


Blood alcohol concentration—or content—(BAC) is used to define intoxication and provides an estimated measure of impairment.  BAC is measured objectively, which means that it is important for individuals who are drinking to realize that regardless of how sober you may feel and behave, it is your BAC that matters legally.

All 50 states now use the benchmark of .08% BAC as the legal threshold for driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while impaired (DWI).  This is significantly lower for commercial drivers with the level of impairment at .04%.

The laws and punishments for a dwi or DUI conviction vary from state to state.  North Carolina, along with the other 49 states, and the District of Columbia, has what is known as “per selaws.  Per se laws generally establish that a person will be considered legally intoxicated once they show a BAC of .08 percent or higher.  No further evidence of intoxication or impairment is needed for purposes of a DUI case.

North Carolina is one of only seven states, plus the District of Columbia, that have a “zero-tolerance” law.  What does this mean?  It means it is illegal for all drivers under the age of 21 to drive with any amount alcohol in their system.  For instance, if you are under 21, and only had one glass of wine, you can be charged with a DWI even though your BAC is 0.00.

All states have “implied consent” laws.  When you apply for a driver’s license, you give consent to field sobriety tests and chemical tests to determine impairment.  A driver risks automatic license suspension and possibly further penalties should he or she refuse to submit to testing after being stopped when there is reasonable suspicion the driver is under the influence.

Breath Test

North Carolina law requires drivers to submit to the portable breath test (PBT) if the officer has reasonable suspicion of impaired driving.  After the driver is arrested, they may be asked to take another breath test, which is more accurate than the PBT, and it is what prosecutors typically use in court to prove a DWI.  Once arrested, the arresting officer must advise you of certain rights and potential consequences. This implied consent advisement must include the following:

  • Of the right to refuse testing, but that such a refusal will result in immediate license revocation of at least one year;
  • that a test result showing a BAC of .08% or higher will result in a license revocation of at least 30 days;
  • of the right to contact an attorney and have a witness present to observe the testing procedures (provided that consultation with counsel and selecting a witness does not delay testing more than 30 minutes); and
  • of the right to seek an independent alcohol test—in addition to that ordered by the officer—upon release.

Blood Test

In addition to, or in lieu of, a breath test, the driver may be asked to take a blood test.  Once again, the implied consent advisement must be given. Should the driver refuse the blood test, or is unconscious, a blood sample can only be taken from the driver with a search warrant. N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 20-16.2, 20-16.3, 20-139.1 (2017).

Penalties for Refusing Chemical Testing

A North Carolina driver who’s charged with an implied consent offense faces an immediate 30-day license revocation.  An additional one-year revocation is imposed after an opportunity for a hearing (assuming the driver either does not request or loses at the hearing).  Even if the driver is ultimately found not guilty of a DWI in criminal court, the one-year revocation for refusing chemical testing remains in effect.  After completing six months of a refusal suspension, the driver can petition the court for a limited driving privilege for driving to and from places such as school and work.

Although criminal penalties are not imposed for chemical test refusals, the fact that a driver refused testing is generally admissible in criminal court to prove a DWI.  The State may still be able to prove its case even without the results of a chemical test indicating the driver’s blood alcohol content. N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 20-16.2, 20-16.5 (2017).

Penalties, Fines, and Sentencing

North Carolina DWI penalties are no joke and should NOT be taken lightly.  The impact of a DWI conviction can affect, among other things, your current and future employment opportunities, educational opportunities, personal relationships, and finances.

There are five different potential levels of punishment once you are convicted of a DWI, ranging from the lowest, Level 5, up to Level 1. Under North Carolina’s sentencing structure, the court determines which level to impose by looking at a statutory list of factors that can aggravate and/or mitigate the culpability of the offender.

Penalties are based on your age, previous DWI offenses, and the type of driver’s license you possess.  Penalties include, but are not limited to:  fines; license suspension or revocation, temporary or permanent; jail time, in some cases mandatory jail time; enrollment in an alcohol safety class or substance abuse program; and a substantial increase in insurance rates.

In addition to criminal penalties, you may also face administrative penalties from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. You may have your driver’s license suspended at the time you are charged—and not yet—not convicted with a DWI.

The above information is a summary and outline of North Carolina’s DWI laws.  North Carolina’s DWI laws are tough and the implications of a DWI charge and conviction are severe and complicated.

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