North Carolina DWI Laws and Penalties

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

In North Carolina, the consequences of a DWI conviction depend on many factors, including how many prior convictions you have. This article covers how North Carolina law defines DWI and the penalties you'll face in various circumstances.

North Carolina's DWI Laws

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."

You Can Get a DWI Without Actually Driving in NC

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.

How NC Defines "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 are complex. There are five levels (with five being the least severe).

DWI Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

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.

North Carolina's DWI Sentencing Levels

The following section covers the penalties for the different sentencing levels

Aggravated Level One DWI Sentencing

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 DWI Sentencing

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 DWI Sentencing

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 the 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 months

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 the 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 IID and revocation periods 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 License 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. Before license reinstatement, all drivers must submit a certificate of completion for treatment or the required substance abuse course.

Getting a Restricted License in NC to Drive During a DWI Suspension

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 before obtaining limited privileges.

Is a DUI a Felony in North Carolina?"

For most first, second, and third DWIs in North Carolina, an offender will be facing misdemeanor charges. But when an offender has three or more prior DWI convictions within the past ten years, the current offense is considered "habitual impaired driving" and can be charged as a class F felony.

DWI offenders who cause serious injuries to or the death of another person can be charged with a felony offense. Generally, DWIs involving serious injuries are class F felonies. DWIs that result in the death of someone are generally class D felonies.

North Carolina's Underage DWI Laws

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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