Felony DWI | When a DWI Causes Injury or Death
A DWI charge in North Carolina is classified as a misdemeanor under usual circumstances (see N.C.G.S. Section 138.1 (d). A conviction or plea under that code section will result in payment of fines and court costs, community service, higher insurance rates, and loss of license or driving privileges for one year. A DWI is a permanent criminal record. There is currently no provision for expungement even years later. And, given the public mood towards DWI, there is no expected change in this harsh reality as legislators only seem to pass stricter laws with harsher punishments. No self-respecting politician who wants to remain in office is ever going to sponsor a bill that might actually help the hapless “drunk driver.”
However there are two types of NC DWI offenses that are classified as an even more serious felony. Those include (1) felony death or serious injury by vehicle, and (2) habitual DWI. Felony death by motor vehicle is charged if the intoxicated person kills someone in an accident during the offense. Habitual DWI may be charged if someone has been convicted of a prior DWI related offense at least three times during the past ten (10) years. A conviction of this felony DWI offense will result in permanent loss of driving privileges in North Carolina and a minimum active jail term of one year. This minimum jail sentence cannot be suspended, and offenders must also complete a substance abuse program either in jail or as a condition of parole.
Felony Death or Felony Serious Injury by Vehicle
N.C.G.S. Section 20-141.4 defines the above felony crimes. Basically, if you are driving impaired in a private vehicle (NCGS 20-138.1) or in a commercial vehicle (NCGS 20-138.2), are involved in an accident, and seriously injure or kill someone, you can be charged and convicted of felony death or felony serious injury. Of course, your impairment, by alcohol, drugs, or a combination thereof, must be the proximate cause of the death or serious injury. And, if you have been previously convicted of impaired driving within the past seven (7) years, the new felony charge can be increased to an aggravated felony. If you are involved in an accident that results in the death of a person because you violated a traffic ordinance, other than impaired driving, you can be prosecuted for a misdemeanor death by vehicle.
Obviously, the criminal and civil punishments for felony DWI cases are some of the most serious available. Persons convicted face active prison sentences as well as civil lawsuits by the victim(s) families. Prison terms are determined after a review of multiple factors, including prior offenses. Then, judges use a chart that outlines ranges of sentences denoted in numbers of months. It is very confusing, but in the end, active prison, not jail, time is measured by those convicted in years. These cases represent the most potentially life changing and require tremendous experience and even a multi-lawyer team approach to defending.
For those of you who want to review the law for themselves, we have summarized it here, in relevant part:
§ 20-141.4. Felony and misdemeanor death by vehicle; felony serious injury by vehicle; aggravated offenses
(a1) Felony Death by Vehicle. – A person commits the offense of felony death by vehicle if the person unintentionally causes the death of another person while engaged in the offense of impaired driving and the impaired driving was the proximate cause of the death. (Note that the impaired driving element must also be the proximate cause of death. If a driver is illegally impaired when struck by another vehicle, any deaths would not fall under this section as the impairment would not be relevant to the accident.) Felony death by vehicle is a Class D felony.
(a2) Misdemeanor Death by Vehicle. – A person commits the offense of misdemeanor death by vehicle if the person unintentionally causes the death of another person while engaged in the violation of any State law or local ordinance applying to the operation or use of a vehicle or to the regulation of traffic and the violation is the proximate cause of the death. (Again, proximate causation of the accident is key to prosecution under this law.) Misdemeanor death by vehicle is a Class A1 misdemeanor.
(a3) Felony Serious Injury by Vehicle. – A person commits the offense of felony serious injury by vehicle if the person unintentionally causes serious injury to another person while engaged in the offense of impaired driving and the impaired driving is the proximate cause of the serious injury. (What constitutes serious injury and proximate causation are the defenses to be developed in these cases.) Felony serious injury by vehicle is a Class F felony.
(a4) Aggravated Felony Serious Injury by Vehicle. – A person commits the offense of aggravated felony serious injury by vehicle if the person unintentionally causes serious injury to another person while engaged in the offense of impaired driving and the impaired driving is the proximate cause of the serious injury, AND the person has a previous conviction involving impaired driving within seven (7) years of the date of the offense. (Prior conviction(s) will enhance both the charge and corresponding punishment here.) Aggravated felony serious injury by vehicle is a Class E felony.
(a5) Aggravated Felony Death by Vehicle. – A person commits the offense of aggravated felony death by vehicle if the person unintentionally causes the death of another person while engaged in the offense of impaired driving and the impaired driving is the proximate cause of the death, AND the person has a previous conviction involving impaired driving within seven (7) years of the date of the offense. Aggravated felony death by vehicle is a Class D felony.
(a6) No Double Prosecutions. – No person who has been charged with death by vehicle may later be prosecuted for the offense of manslaughter arising out of the same death; and conversely, no person who has been charged with manslaughter may subsequently be prosecuted for death by vehicle arising out of the same death.
N.C.G.S. Section 20-138.5(a) states that “[a] person commits the offense of habitual impaired driving if he or she drives while impaired as defined in G.S. 20-138.1 and has been convicted of three or more offenses involving impaired driving as defined in G.S. 20-4.01 (24a) within ten (10) years of the date of this offense.”G.S. 20-138.5 requires that the defendant previously have been convicted of at least three offenses involving impaired driving. Those offenses include:
- Impaired driving under G.S. 20-138.1,
- Habitual impaired driving under G.S. 20-138.5,
- Impaired driving in a commercial vehicle under G.S. 20-138.2,
- Death or serious injury by vehicle under G.S. 20-141.4 based on impaired driving,
- Murder under G.S. 14-17 based on impaired driving,
- Involuntary manslaughter under G.S. 14-18 based on impaired driving, and
- Substantially similar offenses committed in another jurisdiction (other States and perhaps foreign countries).
Many argue that a requirement of four (4) impairment based offenses to permanently lose your license or driving privileges is too many. Based on my experience, I have to agree. DWI enforcement is clearly on the increase due to public pressure and the secondary gain incentive for counties and cities to increase revenue through fines and court costs. There is also the federal money associated with DWI enforcement. We have all been young and done stupid things. So, one previous DWI conviction is more understandable.
A second DWI would seem to indicate that a person either has a dependency issue and/or refuses to learn and ignore the law. A third DWI is, in my view, pretty tough to justify. Statistically, this driver is going to be involved in an accident and injure or kill innocent persons on the road. In an era where DWI laws are always being enhanced and made more strict, this law should be the next one to be reviewed. Four times, regardless of the ten year time period, is just too much for the driving public to bear. In addition, persons in this category obviously have serious addiction issues and will probably drive anyway whether they have a valid license or not.