NC DWI Laws – A Brief Summary of the Basics
North Carolina combined all previous and various drug and alcohol related driving laws under one law when it passed the Safe Roads Act of 1983. In the thirty years since that enactment, NC DWI laws have been regularly amended to make enforcement stricter and punishment harsher. Under current law, given the right circumstances, it is possible for a first offense to result in prison time. Here in Charlotte, we have the highest number of DWI arrests in the State of North Carolina.
In Mecklenburg County, we routinely see DWI checkpoints being set up following concerts and sporting events. Charlotte also has undergone a tremendous downtown revitalization with great restaurants, bars, and hotels, creating more opportunities to be caught on the road after enjoying alcohol. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers are trained in DWI detection and investigation, and are vigilant in looking for impaired drivers on the road.
Along with a vibrant city and high DWI arrest rates, we also have a significant number of Charlotte DWI lawyers who are available to represent those persons charged with a DWI offense. Because there are so many DWI attorneys, it is important to carefully compare credentials and experience before deciding which DWI lawyer to retain.
The following summary of NC DWI laws is offered to provide a brief review of current DWI provisions:
Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Presumption of Impairment Levels:
- 21 years old or older – 0.08%
- Commercial drivers (CDL) – 0.04%
- Minors – no alcohol at all
- Prior DWI conviction – 0.04%
* These levels create a legal presumption of impairment. Even if your BAC level is below these figures, you can still be prosecuted for DWI if the State can prove you were “materially and appreciably impaired” by alcohol and/or drugs (prescription or illegal). The only exception is for minors, for which the State pursues a zero tolerance policy.
Consequences of a DWI Conviction
Depending on your age, any prior offenses, type of license, a DWI conviction will result in the following punishments:
- Fines and court costs in the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars
- Suspension of license for 1 year (first conviction) or even complete loss of license
- Restricted licenses are usually available but not always and there are additional costs and fees
- Seizure and sale of vehicle if charged with DWI while already on restricted license from previous DWI
- Ignition interlock requirements for your vehicle with monthly fees
- Alcohol assessments and recommended treatment programs
- Community service or possible jail time (mandatory at certain levels)
- Significantly higher insurance rates and difficulty in finding coverage
- DWI attorney fees which can vary dramatically
NC DWI Punishment Levels
If you are convicted or plead guilty to a DWI, the judge will hold a sentencing hearing and determine your punishment level after considering certain factors. These include “grossly aggravating,” “aggravating,” and “mitigating” factors. Any “grossly aggravating” factor will result in mandatory time in jail. “Aggravating” and “mitigating” factors can be balanced or offset by your DWI lawyer in an attempt to minimize your final punishment level. Aside from acquittal, the ideal is to be found at a Level 5 punishment.
Getting Your License Back After a Plea or Conviction
At the time of a conviction or plea, the judge will impose a sentence. As part of that sentence, your license will be surrendered to the clerk. If you are from another State, your driving privileges will be suspended, and you will be directed to not drive in North Carolina until you receive an appropriate license. If your plea is planned, your lawyer will usually have a post-trial Limited Driving Privilege (LDP) ready for the judge to sign immediately following the hearing. That LDP will then be filed along with the $100.00 license restoration fee and given to you so you can drive that same day. Certain privileges have additional requirements. For example, if your BAC level was 0.15% or greater, you will have to wait forty-five (45) days and have ignition interlock installed in your vehicle before you can petition for a LDP. In cases where you refused or were deemed to refuse breath testing, you are not eligible for a LDP for six (6) months.
Insurance Rate Increases
NC DWI laws do not require persons convicted of DWI to obtain special SR-22 insurance. However, any conviction or plea to a drinking related driving offense will result in significantly higher rates for years. Additionally, drivers with a DWI in their history have reported difficulty in finding carriers willing to underwrite them at all. Because of the current public sentiment about “drunk drivers” on the road, insurers and even rental car companies are understandably reluctant to offer coverage or vehicles to “tainted” drivers. Some employers have even adopted “zero tolerance” policies for employees who drive company vehicles or trucks as part of their job.
Substance Abuse Assessment
Under NC DWI laws, a new industry was created in conjunction with the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services to provide an assessment and treatment recommendations. The “assessment centers” are typically privately owned and operated. In Charlotte, there are several choices. The fee for an assessment is $100.00, and the assessment is required to obtain a pre-trial limited driving privilege (LDP). The recommended treatment depends on your family history, drinking frequency, prior drinking offenses, and BAC level in the current charge. Treatment will eventually be ordered, and costs will vary. The initial assessment is valid for six (6) months after which a new assessment (which will cost an additional $100.00 fee) will be required by the court.
Ignition Interlock Device
NC DWI laws require an ignition interlock device (IID) installed in vehicles for any driver convicted of DWI with a 0.15% BAC or higher or a subsequent DWI offense within 7 years of any prior conviction. This technology is not yet fully reliable, and users complain of being left stranded, even with no alcohol in their system. There are monthly charges for the equipment and and installation fee. It is also rather humiliating to have to “blow” in front of your family or other passengers in order to get your car to start.
Refusal of Chemical Analysis
In North Carolina, like other jurisdictions, drivers automatically give their “implied consent” to chemical analysis. If you decide to refuse, your North Carolina license (or North Carolina driving privileges if from another state) will be immediately suspended for thirty (30) days (subject to a Limited Driving Privilege) and an additional one (1) year after a DMV hearing challenge even if you are ultimately found not guilty in the associated DWI criminal charge. Additionally, it should be noted that refusal of breath testing can result in a warrant issued to draw a blood sample, even forcibly against a defendant’s will. And, in some exigent cases, an officer may direct medical personnel to collect a blood sample without a judicial warrant.
Commercial Drivers License (CDL)
As one would expect, CDL holders are held to a higher standard than ordinary drivers. In many cases, even an arrest for DWI will result in loss of their job given the risks of lawsuits for any accident after a DWI. Same with their license. CDL drivers can lose their license and ability to work before a DWI conviction. This is why it is so critical for CDL drivers to never drive with any alcohol in their system. The BAC level for presumed impairment for any person driving a commercial vehicle is cut in half to 0.04%, but any scent of alcohol will start the DWI investigation process and almost always results in arrest.
Over the years, we have represented many different types of professionals from doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, and dental hygienists. Given the public outcry and harsh DWI laws, they are naturally concerned that their professional license and even their livelihood is in jeopardy. NC DWI laws are some of the strictest and harshest in the county. However, we have found most licensing agencies are understanding provided that they are properly notified by the license holder and some type of contrition is forthcoming. For our clients, we advocate voluntarily disclosing a DWI arrest, as it is usually required by the licensing agency. Even if it is not required, disclosure is always preferable to exposure, which typically makes it seem as though you were trying to hide the truth.