North Carolina’s DWI law prohibits driving or being in control of a vehicle while:
under the influence of an impairing substance
having any amount of a Schedule I controlled substance in the blood or urine (examples of Schedule I controlled substances include opiates, amphetamines, and heroin).
(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-138.1 (2017).)
North Carolina is known as one of the toughest states on DWI offenders. North Carolina DWI offenders are sentenced based on a sliding scale. The scale includes five levels of misdemeanor DWI—level I being the most and level V the least serious. Any prior DWI convictions are considered aggravating factors that will increase the seriousness of the charge. Therefore, each prior DWI conviction counts as a separate aggravating factor that enhances the driver’s sentence.
The article covers the penalties for a third-offense DWI.
Administrative penalties are those imposed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. These are entirely separate from any criminal penalties the offender may face if convicted in criminal court. In North Carolina, the primary administrative penalty DWI offenders face is license revocation. There are two types of revocation: a civil suspension at the time of arrest and a criminal suspension upon conviction.
First, any driver who is stopped for suspicion of DWI and refuses to submit to a breath test or has a BAC of .08% or higher is looking at immediate revocation for 30 days. An additional one-year revocation is imposed after the offender has an opportunity for a hearing (assuming the motorist either doesn’t request or loses the hearing). Even if the driver isn’t convicted in court, the one-year revocation remains in effect. With this type of suspension, a limited driving privilege may be granted only after a mandatory six-month revocation period.
After being convicted of a third DWI, the North Carolina DMV will automatically and permanently suspend the driver’s license. However, after a five-year mandatory suspension period, the offender can petition the DMV for license reinstatement. If the license is reinstated, it is likely the DMV will require that the driver to have an ignition interlock device (IID) installed prior to license reinstatement. The IID requires the driver to blow into a machine that detects breath alcohol before the car will start. The offender must pay for the installation and monthly service charges for the device. Additionally, the DMV may mandate that the driver only drive during certain times and for certain reasons, such as driving to and from work or school.
Additionally, offenders who are arrested for a third DWI while their license was revoked for a prior impaired driving conviction may face immediate vehicle seizure. This seizure happens at the time of arrest, rather than after the case goes to trial. If the offender is later convicted of the third DWI and the judge determines the offense was committed while the driver’s license was revoked for an impaired driving conviction, the vehicle will be forfeited to the local school board.
The criminal penalties DWI offenders face depend on the classification level of the offense. Most third-offense DWIs are classified at level II or I. North Carolina uses aggravating and mitigating factors to determine the sentencing level. Prior DWI convictions are considered aggravating factors. An offender who’s convicted of a third DWI anytime within seven years of the second DWI conviction will, at a minimum, be sentenced as a level II offender. And if both of the prior convictions are within the past seven years, the offender will be punished at level I. Any additional aggravating factors present, such as a child being in the vehicle at the time of the offense, will make the offense an aggravated level I.
Jail time. North Carolina law specifies minimum and maximum jail sentences for DWI offenders—and the minimum jail sentence for even the least serious offense classification (level V) is 24 hours. The minimums, however, are somewhat misleading because the court can “suspend” the sentence for level V, IV, and III offenses—meaning the driver doesn’t actually have to serve the time in jail. Here are the possible jail times corresponding to offense level:
Level V: 24 hours to 60 days
Level VI: 48 hours to 120 days
Level III: 72 hours to six months
Level II: Seven days to one year
Level I: 30 days to two years
Aggravated Level I: one to three years
And an offender who accumulates three DWI convictions within a seven-year period can be charged with a felony or habitual driving while impaired, which is punishable by a minimum of one year in jail.
Fines. In general, a standard third-offense DWI in North Carolina carries fines ranging from $2,000 to $4,000. As with jail time, fine amounts are based on the level classification. Here are the maximum fines:
Level V: $200
Level VI: $500
Level III: $1,000
Level II: $2,000
Level I: $4,000
Aggravated Level I: $10,000
Probation. In some circumstances, a judge might suspend a DWI sentence and, instead, impose a term of probation. Conditions of probation often include jail time (to be served on a schedule set by the offender’s probation officer), community service, and participation in a drug and alcohol evaluation program. However, the judge does not have the authority to sentence a level II or level I offender to probation. Offenders sentenced as an aggravated level I will have the opportunity to request parole at the appropriate time during their one-to-three year sentence.
Substance Abuse Assessment. All North Carolina impaired driving offenders must complete a substance abuse assessment and comply with any recommended treatment before their driver’s license will be restored.
The consequences of DWI are serious. If you’ve been arrested or charged for DWI, you should talk to an experienced DWI attorney right away. A DWI attorney in your area can help you understand how the law applies to the facts of your case and advise you on what to do next. Depending on the circumstances of your case, an attorney might be able to negotiate a plea bargain for a lesser charge, such as “reckless driving."