North Carolina’s DWI Laws and Conviction Penalties

The consequences of misdemeanor and felony DWIs in North Carolina.

North Carolina's driving while intoxicated (DWI) (also called "DUI") laws prohibit driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. While all states have impaired driving laws, a DWI conviction in North Carolina does not necessarily require a moving vehicle or even signs of physical impairment.

This article outlines what circumstances can lead to a DWI conviction and some of the possible penalties one could face if convicted of driving while intoxicated in North Carolina.

North Carolina's DWI Laws

To convict a driver of a DWI in court, prosecutors must prove the motorist operated a motor vehicle:

  • while "under the influence" of an impairing substance,
  • with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least .08%, or
  • with any metabolized controlled substance in his or her system.

In other words, a DWI conviction can be based on BAC, a failed drug test, or actual impairment.

What "Driving" Means Under North Carolina's DWI Laws

North Carolina's laws define driving broadly. A person is considered to be driving—and can be convicted of a DWI—if in actual physical control of a moving or running vehicle.

In determining whether a driver was in actual physical control of a vehicle, the judge or jury will generally consider factors such as whether the driver was awake or asleep, had manipulated the controls, or was otherwise capable of actively engaging the vehicle.

Proof of Intoxication for a DWI Offense in North Carolina

As previously noted, a DWI conviction doesn't require proof of actual impairment. A driver can be convicted of a DWI based on BAC or having drugs in his or her system. DWI charges based on the amount of alcohol or the presence of drugs in a driver's system are sometimes called "per se" DWI charges.

In most cases, prosecutors will have alcohol or drug test results, making it easy to prove a per se charge. However, prosecutors also have the option of proving actual impairment. A driver is considered intoxicated if the ingested substance has caused "appreciable impairment" to the driver's mental or physical faculties.

To prove impairment, a prosecutor will typically have the officer testify in court as to what physical signs of impairment (such as stumbling or slurred speech) he or she observed. The prosecutor might also use experts to testify as to how certain drugs can affect a person's ability to drive.

Penalty Categories for North Carolina DWIs

In most states, the penalties for a DUI conviction are largely based on the number of prior convictions the driver has. North Carolina does things a little differently, though prior convictions are still a part of the equation.

North Carolina's DWI Aggravating and Mitigating Sentencing Factors

In North Carolina, DWI offenses are categorized into levels based on the presence of certain factors. These factors are grouped into three types:

  • gross aggravating factors
  • aggravating factors, and
  • mitigating factors.

Generally, DWI sentencing levels are based on which and how many of these factors are present in a case.

DWI Gross Aggravating Factors

DWI gross aggravating factors include:

Prior DWI convictions count as gross aggravating factors only if they occurred within the past seven years.

DWI Aggravating Factors

DWI aggravating factors include:

Having several recent traffic violations can also be counted as an aggravating factor for DWI sentencing, in certain circumstances.

DWI Mitigating Factors

DWI mitigating factors include:

  • being only slightly intoxicated (a BAC of .09% or less)
  • driving safely and lawfully (apart from impairment)
  • having a clean driving record, and
  • having a prescription for the intoxicating substance (provided that the driver took the substance as prescribed).

Also, the judge will consider it a mitigating factor where the driver voluntarily completes a mental health assessment or substance abuse treatment following a DWI arrest.

North Carolina's DWI Sentencing Levels

Based on the number of aggravating factors, the DWI will be designated as level five to aggravated level one. All DWI convictions require the offender to complete a substance abuse evaluation prior to sentencing, which the judge will consider during sentencing.

Level Five DWI Offenses

A DWI will be considered level five (the lowest level) if there are no gross aggravating factors and the mitigating factors outweigh any aggravating factors.

A level five DWI carries:

  • 24 hours to 60 days in jail, and
  • up to $200 in fines.

However, the jail period can generally be satisfied by community service or inpatient treatment.

Level Four DWI Offenses

A DWI will be considered level four if there are no gross aggravating factors and the aggravating and mitigating factors generally balance out.

A level four DWI carries:

  • 48 hours to 120 days in jail, and
  • up to $500 in fines.

Again, the jail sentence can generally be replaced with community service or inpatient treatment.

Level Three DWI Offenses

A DWI is a level three offense if it involves no gross aggravating factors and the aggravating factors substantially outweigh the mitigating factors.

A level three DWI carries:

  • 72 hours to six months in jail, and
  • up to $1,000 in fines.

The judge has the discretion to grant jail credit for community service or inpatient treatment.

Level Two DWI Offenses

Generally, a DWI that involves only one gross aggravating factor is a level two offense.

A level two DWI carries:

  • seven days to 12 months in jail, and
  • up to $2,000 in fines.

The mandatory jail term can be served through 90 days of monitored sobriety. If the offender had a prior DWI within the last five years, he or she must also complete 240 hours of community service.

Level One DWI Offenses

A DWI involving two gross aggravating factors (such as a third DWI in seven years) will be considered a level one offense. All DWIs involving minor passengers are also level one offenses.

A level one DWI conviction carries:

  • 30 days to 24 months in jail, and
  • up to $4,000 in fines.

In cases where the judge grants probation, the offender must serve at least ten days in jail, followed by monitored sobriety.

Aggravated Level One DWI Offenses

The most serious DWI offenses are aggravated level one offenses. This classification is for DWIs involving at least three gross aggravating factors.

For an aggravated level one DWI, an offender faces:

  • 12 to 36 months in jail, and
  • up to $10,000 in fines.

In cases where the judge grants probation, the offender must serve at least 120 days in jail, followed by monitored sobriety.

North Carolina Felony DWI Penalties

A DWI in North Carolina can be charged as a felony if the offender has at least three prior DWI convictions in the past ten years or if the current DWI results in serious injuries or deaths.

North Carolina's DWI Habitual Violator Law

A driver with four DWI convictions in a ten-year period can be charged with a class F felony as a "habitual violator." A conviction carries 12 to 41 months in prison, permanent license revocation, and vehicle forfeiture.

DWIs Involving Serious Injuries or Death in North Carolina

A DWI that involved serious injury or death can be charged as a felony.

"Felony serious injury by vehicle" is a class F felony and carries ten to 41 months in prison.

"Felony death by vehicle" is a class D felony and carries 38 to 160 months in prison.

License-Related Penalties for a North Carolina DWI Offense

A DWI will typically lead to license-related penalties. These penalties vary depending on the driver's level of cooperation during the arrest and level of impairment. License-related penalties can result from a DWI arrest and/or conviction.

North Carolina's Implied Consent Law

Under North Carolina's "implied consent" law, all drivers lawfully arrested for a DWI are required to submit to a chemical test of their breath, blood, or urine. Drivers who refuse to comply with a lawful request for chemical testing will face driver's license penalties.

Refusing a Chemical Test in North Carolina

When a driver refuses to take an alcohol or drug test requested by an officer, the officer will submit a report to the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Generally, the DMV will revoke the driver's license for 12 months for a refusal. If the DWI involved injury or death, this penalty will be consecutive (in addition) to any other revocation period (for a DWI conviction, for instance).

Limited driving privileges (discussed below) may be available after six months of revocation.

License Revocation and Ignition Interlocks for DWI Convictions in North Carolina

All DWI convictions are reported to the DMV. The DMV will revoke the driver's license for:

  • one year for a first DWI conviction in the last seven years
  • four years for a second DWI conviction in the last seven years, and
  • permanently for three or more DWI convictions in seven years.

After the revocation period, all drivers are required to install an ignition interlock device (IID) on any operated vehicle. The IID must be maintained for:

  • one year for a first offense
  • three years for a second offense, and
  • seven years for a third or subsequent offense.

In addition to the IID requirements, reinstated drivers will be subject to a lower BAC threshold for three years.

Getting a DWI Restricted License in North Carolina

Revoked drivers are generally able to apply to the DMV for limited driving privileges. These limited licenses generally require enrollment in a treatment program and installation of an IID. The driver might also be limited to driving to certain locations and only during certain hours of the day.

North Carolina's Underage Drinking and Driving Laws

North Carolina is a zero-tolerance state, meaning that drivers who are under the age of 21 are prohibited from driving with any amount of alcohol in their system.

An underage DWI offense is a class 2 misdemeanor. A conviction carries up to $1,000 in fines and a maximum of 60 days in jail. The driver's license will also be revoked until he or she turns 21 and completes any court-ordered treatment.

Talk with a North Carolina DWI Lawyer

If you've been arrested for driving while under the influence in North Carolina, you should get in contact with a qualified DWI attorney in your area. DWI penalties are serious, but many penalties can be avoided or reduced. Consult with a DWI attorney to understand how the law applies in your case.

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