North Carolina DWI Laws

North Carolina has some of the strictest drinking and driving laws ever adopted in the U.S. Known collectively as "driving while intoxicated" (DWI), motorists who violate the statute face severe penalties.

Here's how the law works. If you are driving a motor vehicle and you are visibly intoxicated or have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent of higher, you are violating the law. Typically, a state trooper will put you through a series of field sobriety tests (FSTs) to determine if you are actually impaired. You don't need a BAC of 0.08 percent or above to be arrested for a DWI. Bad driving and/or poor performance on FSTs can be enough.

Legal Limit

A measurement of your BAC is the most common way a police officer can determine whether you're legally impaired. Here's some additional limits the law imposes:

  • 21 or Older: 0.08%;
  • Commercial drivers: 0.04%;
  • Younger than 21: Any alcohol concentration.

North Carolina DWI's Are a Two-Part Process

When you are arrested for a DWI offense in North Carolina, you'll have to deal with both your criminal case and a separate driver's license suspension. The North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will handle your license suspension pursuant to the implied consent laws and the North Carolina criminal courts will take care of your criminal penalties.

Basically, what happens in court won't have any bearing on the status of your driver's license and vice versa. Neither one impacts the other.

Possible Criminal Penalties

North Carolina's sentencing structure is very complicated. North Carolina DWI penalties are based on what "level" "of DWI you are charged with. Your sentence will be based largely on whether you are charged with a Level 5 (least serious), Level 4, Level 3, Level 2, Level 1, or Level 1 Aggravated (most serious). Your penalties can include possible jail time, a huge fine, and other conditions such as a mandatory 1-year suspension of your driver's license, they must submit to a Substance Abuse Assessment and complete all recommended treatment or education classes, and you might have to install an Interlock Device on any car you own or operate. The judge weights all of the aggravating/mitigating factors to determine your level.

Aggravating Factors include:

  • BAC.15 Percent of Higher;
  • Especially reckless or dangerous driving;
  • Driving with a suspended license;
  • Speeding;
  • Child under 18 years old in the car;
  • Prior criminal and driving record; and
  • Any other aggravating factors.

Remember, the higher your BAC, the more severe your penalties may be. Multiple convictions will also result in harsher sentences.

Here is a brief overview of North Carolinas DWI law. For more information see After a DUI, DUI Expungement, and DUI and Insurance.

Code Sections Impaired Driving: NCGS §20-138.1, Sentencing: NCGS § 20-179
BAC Limit

Over 21: 0.08 Percent or higher, Commercial Drivers: 0.04 Percent or higher

What is Prohibited?

DWI: Driving a motor vehicle while visibly impaired by alcohol or drugs or have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or more.

Enhanced Penalty
  • BAC .15 Percent or Higher;
  • Especially reckless or dangerous driving;
  • Driving with a suspended license;
  • Speeding;
  • Child under 18 years old in the car;
  • Prior criminal and driving record;
  • Any other aggravating factors.

Typical Criminal DWI Sentences

Level V: Punishable by a fine up to $200 and a minimum jail sentence of 24 hours and a maximum of 60 days.

Level IV : Punishable by a fine up to $500 and a minimum jail sentence of 48 hours and a maximum of 120 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

Level II: Punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and a minimum jail sentence of seven days and a maximum of one year

Level I: Punishable by a fine up to $4,000 and a minimum jail sentence of 30 days and a maximum of two years

Felony charges:

• 3 DWI Convictions within past seven (7) years;
• Causing serious injury while driving;
• Causing death while driving.

Felony Punishment: Minimum of one (1) year in state prison.

It's best to never drink or use drugs and drive. Select a designated driver ahead of time, who will stay sober. If you're impaired and don't have a designated driver, use a taxi, call a sober friend or family member, or use public transportation. If you do find yourself facing a DWI, you may wish to contact a North Carolina criminal defense attorney for assistance.

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