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Is DWI a Felony in North Carolina? (2024)

Driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a serious criminal offense, and the state enforces very strict rules regarding DWI convictions and associated penalties compared to some other states. If you are arrested and charged with DWI, it’s natural to wonder as to the severity of your charge and the potential penalties you face if convicted. Under state law, a DWI offense can potentially qualify as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the specific details of the offense.

What Determines DWI?

In North Carolina, it is illegal for any driver to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol. When it comes to alcohol, the state uses the blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) measurement metric to determine whether a driver is too impaired to operate their vehicle safely. If a driver tests positive for alcohol with a BAC of .08% or more, they will be charged with DWI. Testing for drug use is more difficult and typically requires the arresting officers to secure blood samples from drivers after conducting lawful arrests.

When a driver is arrested and charged with DWI, the severity of the charge hinges on the specifics of the case. In every DWI case, both aggravating and mitigating factors will come into play, influencing the judge’s final decision regarding appropriate penalties for the defendant. Aggravating factors are details that work against the defendant, encouraging the judge to issue harsher penalties. Mitigating factors are the opposite and work in the defendant’s favor, encouraging the judge toward leniency in sentencing.

Misdemeanor Versus Felony DWI

The most important factor in any DWI case for the defendant is whether they face a misdemeanor or felony charge. Both carry severe penalties, but the penalties for felony DWI are far more severe. Under state law, misdemeanor DWI offenses are divided into five Levels, while felony DWI has its own designation.

  • Level 5 is the lowest-level misdemeanor DWI charge with the lightest penalties. The defendant may face 24 hours to 60 days in jail, but the judge may be willing to suspend incarceration in lieu of community service, mandatory substance abuse treatment, and other alternative penalties.
  • Level 4 can lead to a jail sentence of 48 hours to 120 days, and the defendant faces up to $500 in fines
  • Level 3 DWI will incur a sentence of at least 72 hours up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, and additional penalties assigned at the discretion of the sentencing judge.
  • Level 2 DWI can incur a sentence of 30 days to two years in county jail as well as at least $2,000 in fines.
  • Level 1 misdemeanor DWI can also lead to a jail sentence of 30 days up to two years, and the defendant will also face up to $4,000 in fines.

In the state, Level 1 and Level 2 misdemeanor DWI charges are reserved for defendants who already have DWI convictions on their records, those who are arrested for DWI while driving with a child in their car, or those arrested for DWI while under a driver’s license suspension or revocation.

Felony DWI applies when the defendant has hurt or killed someone else due to their intoxicated driving, or for a defendant who has a record of three previous DWI convictions within the past seven years. Penalties for felony DWI typically vary based on the specific details of the case, but the defendant is likely to face at least one year in state prison as well as a mandatory substance abuse treatment program.

FAQs About DWI Felony in North Carolina

Do I Need to Hire a DWI Defense Attorney for My Case?

Every American has the right to defense representation when they are accused of any crime. If the defendant cannot afford to hire a private defense attorney, or if they do not wish to pay a private attorney’s fees, the court can appoint a public defender to their case at no cost to the defendant. While this may seem like a prudent option, a private DWI defense attorney can offer a more comprehensive level of defense representation and more personal attention to your case.

Can I Have a Prior DWI Removed From My Record in North Carolina?

No, a DWI cannot be removed from your criminal record under state law. DWI is one of the few criminal offenses that is not eligible for expungement. Additionally, if you have a prior DWI from within the last three years and are charged a second time, you will face harsher penalties and may automatically qualify for a felony DWI charge.

Can a First DWI Be a Felony?

Yes, it is possible for a first-time DWI offender to face a felony-level charge depending on the severity of their offense. The most common reason for a first-time DWI to be charged at the felony level is causing severe bodily injury or death. If the defendant seriously injured or killed someone in an accident, their DWI charge is very likely to be escalated to felony status.

Will You Go to Jail for a Felony DWI?

DWI can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony in the state. There are five levels of misdemeanor DWI charges possible, and jail time can be an element of the defendant’s sentence at each level. Level 1 is the most serious while Level 5 is the least serious. At the felony level, the defendant faces incarceration in state prison rather than county jail. The minimum prison sentence for DWI in the state is one year, and this sentence cannot be suspended.

Christina Rivenbark & Associates offers a wide range of legal services. We handle both personal injury and criminal defense with years of experience in both areas of state law. If you or a loved one has been injured by a DWI driver, we can help you hold them accountable for your damages. If you have been charged with any DWI offense, our team can provide defense representation. Contact us today and schedule a consultation with our team to learn more about the legal services we offer.

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