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A “Drink or Two” Could Mean Jail Time in North Carolina

We are all aware that drinking and driving is wrong. No one should get behind the wheel of a car after a night of drinking. Unfortunately, some may decide they are still able to drive after two or three glasses of wine or a shot or two of liquor and that’s the big problem. We wrongly assume that “just a couple of glasses” in no way affects the ability to drive.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 300,000 incidents of drinking and driving occur each day. And an arrest doesn’t typically mark the first time a person drives under the influence: The average drunk driver does so over 80 times before getting caught.

You’ve Made the Wrong Decision

You grab your keys and leave the bar late on a Saturday night. Just a few miles down the road you hear a siren and see the flashing lights. The officer smells alcohol so he requests you step outside the vehicle and submit to a field sobriety test. You fail the test and are then required to take a blood alcohol content (BAC) test. You blow a 1.2% and are immediately handcuffed, charged with Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), and now facing serious legal repercussions.

What are your next steps?

You first need to find experienced legal counsel. North Carolina uses a very unique sentencing system for punishing driving while impaired convictions that is much different than what is used for any other type of crime. While it’s generally true that you could expect a lesser punishment for a DWI first offense in the state, this is not always the case.

North Carolina uses a system based on six levels of possible punishment. Within each level is a range of punishments the court can impose. If you are convicted of DWI, the first determination made by the court is what level to apply. The law has a list of sentencing factors that might be present in a case and must be considered. “Mitigating factors” can help reduce punishment, but “aggravating factors” can make things worse and “grossly aggravating factors” can be devastating to your case.

Court Will Decide Your “Level”

North Carolina DWI penalties are based on your “level,” and your judge uses mitigating factors to determine that level. Factors include your BAC, prescription medications, current driving record, and other aspects of your situation and overall driving history.

As listed on the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s website, there are five levels of misdemeanor DWI, with Level I being the most serious and Level V the least.

Level V

Punishable by a fine up to $200 and a minimum jail sentence of 24 hours and a maximum of 60 days. A judge can suspend the sentence, but only the after the driver spends 24 hours in jail, performs 24 hours of community service, or avoids operating a vehicle for 30 days.

Level IV

Punishable by a fine up to $500 and a minimum jail sentence of 48 hours and a maximum of 120 days. A judge can suspend the sentence, but only after the driver spends 48 hours in jail, performs 48 hours of community service, or avoids operating a vehicle for 60 days.

Level III

Punishable by a fine up to $1,000 and a minimum jail sentence of 72 hours and a maximum of six months. A judge can suspend the sentence only upon completion of at least 72 hours in jail, performing 72 hours of community service, or not operating a vehicle for 90 days.

Level II

Punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and a minimum jail sentence of seven days and a maximum of one year. A judge cannot suspend the minimum sentence.

Level I

Punishable by a fine up to $4,000 and a minimum jail sentence of 30 days and a maximum of two years. A judge cannot suspend the minimum sentence.

Level I and II drivers are repeat offenders, those with revoked licenses, impaired drivers, impaired drivers transporting young children, and impaired drivers who hurt someone in a crash. Impaired drivers must complete a substance abuse assessment and comply with any recommended treatment as a condition for having their license restored at the end of the revocation period.

When DWI Becomes a Felony

For Habitual DWI offenders, drivers who have had three prior DWI convictions within the past seven years, DWI becomes a more severe felony. But, more importantly, the Habitual DWI statute now mandates a minimum active jail term of one year—a sentence that cannot be suspended. Offenders must also go through a substance abuse program while in jail or as a condition of parole.

The Governor’s DWI Initiative takes away from repeat DWI offenders the means to drive while impaired; namely, their cars. Under the new provision, a law enforcement officer can seize a driver’s car if the officer charges that person with DWI and that person was driving while his or her license was revoked due to a previous impaired driving offense. The seizure happens at the time of the arrest and not after the case has come to trial.

If a court convicts the driver of DWI and of committing the offense while driving with a revoked license due to a previous impaired driving offense, the judge will order the vehicle forfeited. The school board can then sell the vehicle and keep the proceeds, sharing the money with any other school systems in the county, 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 the court is satisfied they are an innocent party.

Call Your Attorney Immediately

As you can see, dealing with a DWI charge is complex and can be confusing to most. All DWI violators must appear before a judge—it’s crucial you have a knowledgeable and experienced attorney by your side to help you navigate the process. He or she can help you get as close to the minimum penalties as possible and aid in the negotiation of limited driving privileges and penalty alternatives like community service.

Generally, the court and Department of Motor Vehicles issue limited driving privileges at their own discretion, which means you don’t technically apply for a restricted license, but you may request restricted privileges.

Your attorney might find that you’re immediately eligible, or discover how long into your suspension or revocation you must get before the court will issue limited driving privileges.

Prevention is the Best Course
Obviously, your best option is to not remotely consider operating a vehicle after consuming any amount of alcohol. So, how can you prevent drinking and driving?

  • Always choose a designated driver every time you go out.
  • If you go out alone, do not drink alcohol. Order a soft drink or water.
  • If you’ve been drinking, call a taxi or car-sharing service for a ride.
  • Never get in a car with someone who has been drinking.

Think of it this way: Is drinking and driving more important than your legal status or life? Take a cab, protect yourself and others on the roadways, and don’t become another drinking and driving statistic. Operating a motor vehicle while sober can be difficult enough; adding alcohol or other intoxicants into the mix is putting your life and the lives of others on the roadways at risk. Make the right choice and put your keys down.

For more information or to schedule a consultation, please contact GreeneWilson Attorneys at Law by calling (252) 634-9400 or visiting www.greenewilson.com.

(Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, North Carolina Department of Public Safety; State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company; National Public Radio East; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; QuitAlcohol.com; DMV.org.)

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