Handcuffs, Car Keys, and an Alcoholic DrinkDriving while intoxicated (DWI) is illegal in North Carolina and is punished more harshly than most states in our country. Even if this is your first offense, the punishments could be serious if you are convicted. In addition, you would have a permanent criminal record that could have long-term consequences on your life.

One of your first steps after your arrest should be to retain an experienced DWI defense attorney. Your lawyer can develop a strong defense strategy that may result in the charges being dismissed or reduced to a less serious offense. This is possible even if you know you are guilty of the crime, so do not delay contacting us to obtain the legal representation you need to fight the DWI charges you face.

What Is DWI in North Carolina?

Under North Carolina General Statute § 20-138.1, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle on a highway, street, or public area while intoxicated. A person can be arrested for DWI for the following:

  • Driving while under the influence of an impairing substance
  • Driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher
  • Driving with any amount of a controlled substance, such as marijuana, heroin, or cocaine, or its metabolites in their system

Commercial drivers can be convicted of DWI if their BAC is 0.04 or higher, and individuals under 21 years old could be found guilty if there is any amount of alcohol in their system.

What is considered operating a motor vehicle is defined broadly. A person only needs to be in control of the vehicle. Depending on the facts surrounding the arrest, they can be considered operating the vehicle and be found guilty of DWI even if the motor vehicle was not moving.

How Mitigating and Aggravating Factors Can Affect a DWI Sentence

North Carolina uses a complicated sentencing system that takes into consideration many aggravating and mitigating factors in determining a person’s sentence if they are convicted of DWI. The most serious factors that can result in a harsher sentence are referred to as grossly aggravating factors and include:

  • Being convicted of a DWI-related offense within seven years of the date of the current DWI offense
  • Driving on a revoked license due to a DWI conviction at the time of the DWI arrest
  • Causing an accident while intoxicated that results in victims suffering serious injuries
  • Driving with a passenger until 18 years old when arrested for DWI

Aggravating factors are not as serious as grossly aggravating factors, but will also result in a stiffer sentence. Here are some major factors:

  • Having a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher
  • Engaging in reckless or otherwise dangerous driving
  • Driving when a driver’s license has been revoked
  • Having a conviction for speeding to elude arrest
  • Being convicted of speeding by at least 30 mph over the posted speed limit

If there are any mitigating factors, they must also be considered at sentencing and can result in a less harsh punishment. They include:

  • Having a clean driving record
  • Having a BAC of 0.09 percent or lower
  • Being impaired because of taking a proper dose of prescribed medication
  • Driving safely other than driving while impaired at the time of the arrest

Punishments for First-Time DWI in Mecklenburg County

If you are convicted of DWI, the judge sentencing you will weigh your grossly aggravating, aggravated, and mitigating factors in deciding your sentence. There are six levels of punishment, with aggravated level one being the most serious and level five being the least severe. Here are the possible punishments.

Aggravated Level One

If the judge finds that there are three or more grossly aggravated factors, your punishment would be in the Aggravated Level One range. It can include:

  • Jail sentence of 12 to 36 months
  • Fines of up to $10,000
  • Probation that includes drug and alcohol monitoring and a drug and alcohol treatment program after serving a minimum of 120 days in jail

Level One

Your sentencing would be at Level One if there are two grossly aggravating factors or you were driving with a minor in your vehicle at the time of your arrest. You may be sentenced to a jail sentence of 30 days to 24 months and fined up to $4,000. If you are placed on probation, you would first have to serve at least 10 days in jail, submit to alcohol and drug testing, and complete a substance abuse program. 

Level Two

If the judge finds one grossly aggravating factor, your punishment can include seven days to 12 months in jail and a $2,000 fine. Probation may be allowed if you submit to 90 days of monitoring for sobriety and complete a court-ordered treatment program.

Levels Three Through Five

You would be sentenced at Level Three, Four, or Five if there were no grossly aggravating factors. Here is how to know which level you would be placed in:

  • Level Three. Your aggravating factors substantially outweigh the mitigating ones.
  • Level Four. There are no aggravating or mitigating factors or the mitigating ones balance out the aggravating factors.
  • Level Five. Your mitigating factors substantially outweigh any aggravating ones.

As with the more serious levels of punishment, you would be required to go through a substance abuse assessment and complete a treatment program. You could also be sentenced to:

  • Level Three: 72 hours to three months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.
  • Level Four: 48 hours to 120 days in jail and a fine not to exceed $500.
  • Level Five: 24 hours to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $200.

In addition to being sentenced to jail and fines, you could have your driver’s license suspended and may have to install an ignition interlock system in order to obtain a restricted license.

Penalties for Second and Subsequent DWI Offenses

If you are convicted of a second, third, or subsequent DWI charge, you would be sentenced based on the grossly aggravating, aggravating, and mitigating factors listed above. In addition, your driver’s license suspension could be longer, or it could be revoked. Here are the range of punishments for these crimes:

  • Second offense: Minimum jail sentence of 24 hours to 60 days to a maximum of 30 days to 2 years and a fine of between $200 and $4,000.
  • Third offense: 24 hours to a three-year jail sentence and a minimum fine of $200 up to $10,000.

Have You Been Arrested for a DWI in Charlotte, NC?

If you are facing DWI charges, you need to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Charlotte office directly at 980.207.3355 to schedule your free consultation.


C. Todd Browning
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Charlotte Criminal Defense and DWI Lawyer