North Carolina DWI Laws and Penalties

What establishes a North Carolina DWI (driving while impaired) and the consequences of a conviction.

North Carolina prohibits the operation of a motor vehicle on any highway or public place:

Driving under the influence is usually referred to as "driving while impaired" or "DWI."

Actual physical control of the vehicle. North Carolina has extended the term "operation" to include having "actual physical control" of the vehicle. So, depending on the specific circumstances, a driver can be convicted of a DWI without the vehicle actually being in motion.

Under the influence. A North Carolina driver is considered to be under the influence if the ingested substance has caused appreciable impairment to the driver's faculties.

Jail Time and Fines for North Carolina DWI Convictions

The basic and "minimum" penalties for a DWI conviction are provided below. However, North Carolina's sentencing procedures for impaired driving convictions is complex. There are five levels (with five being the least severe)

A DWI conviction will be followed by a sentencing hearing. At this hearing, the prosecutor and defendant can present aggravating and mitigating evidence.

Based on these factors, the judge will sentence the offender DWI under one of five levels. The judge will assign the jail term, fine, and other penalties according to each level's parameters.

Aggravated level one. If the judge finds three or more gross aggravating factors, the driver will face fines of up to $10,000 and 12 to 36 months in jail. If the judge grants probation, the driver must serve at least 120 days in jail, submit to alcohol and drug monitoring during probation, and complete a drug and alcohol assessment and treatment program.

Level one. A DWI with two gross aggravating factors or that involved a minor passenger carries up to $4,000 in fines and 30 days to 24 months in jail. The judge can grant probation, but the driver must still spend ten days in jail, submit to sobriety monitoring, and complete a substance abuse assessment and treatment.

Level two. A DWI involving one gross aggravating factor will result in up to $2,000 in fines and seven days to 12 months in jail. The driver can avoid the minimum jail term by submitting to at least 90 days of monitored sobriety. The judge will also order completion of a drug and alcohol assessment, followed by treatment or some other rehabilitative course. A driver with a prior DWI within the last five years must complete 240 hours of community service.

Levels three, four, and five. If no gross aggravating factors exist, the judge will balance and weigh the aggravating and mitigating factors. If there are more aggravating factors than mitigating factors, a level three punishment will apply. If the factors are approximately balanced, the driver will receive a level four punishment. And if mitigating factors outweigh any aggravating factors, the judge will impose level five penalties.

Level 3

Level 4

Level 5

Jail Time

72 hours to 6 month

48 hours to 120 days

24 hours to 60 days


Max $1,000

Max $500

Max $200

Generally, the minimum jail time can be avoided by completing community service.

All DWI convictions carry a mandatory substance abuse assessment, followed by the recommended treatment or rehabilitative course. The judge can permit time completed in inpatient treatment to count towards required jail time.

License Suspensions for a North Carolina DWI

The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will revoke the driver's license of anyone convicted of a DWI. Following the revocation, the driver will be required to install an ignition interlock device (IID). The periods of time for revocations and IIDs are listed below and depend on the number of prior offenses in the last seven years.

1st Offense

2nd Offense

3rd Offense

Revocation Period

1 year

4 years


Ignition Interlock Device

1 year (until 21 years old if underage)

3 years

7 years

Early reinstatement. A driver can become eligible for early reinstatement by submitting to alcohol monitoring. A four-year revocation can be reduced to two years and a permanent revocation can be restored after three years. A permanent revocation can also be restored after only 24 months if the driver has completed 12 successful months of monitored sobriety. Prior to license reinstatement, all drivers must submit a certificate of completion for treatment or the required substance abuse course.

Restricted license. First offenders are generally eligible for limited driving privileges during the revocation period. With limited privileges, the motorist can drive only to and from work, school, and church. As conditions of obtaining limited privileges, the driver might be required to complete treatment and use an IID. Drivers with a BAC of .15% or more must complete at least 45 days of the revocation prior to obtaining limited privileges.

North Carolina's Implied Consent Laws

North Carolina's "implied consent" laws specify that all motorists agree to take a urine, blood, or breath test if lawfully arrested for driving under the influence. Motorists who refuse a breath test will be subject to a 12-month revocation for the refusal.

Underage DWI

While all drivers can be convicted of a DWI, drivers under the age of 21 can be convicted of a class 2 misdemeanor for driving with any amount of alcohol or drugs in his or her system. A conviction carries up to $1,000 in fines and a maximum of 60 days in jail. The underage motorist's license will also be revoked until he or she turns 21 and completes all treatment requirements.

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