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From bad to worst: North Carolina’s six levels of DWI

On Behalf of The Law Firm of Brent D. Ratchford |

Regular readers of our Gaston County criminal defense blog undoubtedly know that North Carolina has some of the toughest DWI laws in the nation. But few people are familiar with all six of our state’s DWI penalty levels and what each means to those who are arrested for driving while intoxicated.

The least serious is Level V and the most serious is Level IA. The penalty levels are determined by the presence of aggravating and mitigating factors that must be weighed in your DWI case.

Grossly aggravating factors

  • A prior conviction for an offense involving impaired driving
  • Driving with a license revoked due to impaired driving
  • Serious injury to another person caused by impaired driving
  • Driving impaired with a child under 18 in the vehicle

Aggravating factors

  • Gross impairment: an alcohol concentration of .15 percent or more
  • Especially reckless or dangerous driving
  • Negligent driving that led to a reportable accident
  • Driving while license revoked (DWLR)
  • Speeding to elude
  • Speeding at least 30 mph over the limit
  • Passing a stopped school bus

Those are aggravating factors if any of them are in addition to your DWI and result in conviction.

The following can also be aggravating factors if they’re part of your driving record:

  • Two or more prior convictions of a motor vehicle offense not involving impaired driving for which at least three points are assigned
  • A prior impaired driving conviction more than seven years before the current DWI

Mitigating factors

  • Alcohol concentration didn’t exceed .09 percent
  • A safe driving record
  • Voluntary completion of a substance abuse assessment, followed by compliance with recommendations and at least 60 days of continuous abstinence from alcohol

It should be noted that these lists of grossly aggravating, aggravating and mitigating factors are not exhaustive. North Carolina law states that the court can deem other factors as aggravating or mitigating as it sees fit. In addition, some factors listed above contain caveats or details that should be discussed with an attorney experienced in DUI defense

The DWI penalty level is determined by the judge who weighs aggravating and mitigating factors in your case. Let’s go from bad to worst, beginning with the least serious DWI:

  • Level V

This is the most common for a first-time offender. At this level, mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors. Punishments range from a minimum of 24 hours in jail or 24 hours of community service up to 60 days in jail. Maximum fine: $200.

  • Level IV

Aggravating factors are equivalent to mitigating factors. Possible penalties include a minimum of 48 hours in jail up to 120 days. Forty-eight hours of community service can also be a part of the penalties imposed. Maximum fine: $500.

  • Level III

Aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors at this level, so possible punishments escalate again. The minimum jail sentence is 72 hours; the maximum is six months. Seventy-two hours of community service can also be a part of the penalties imposed. Maximum fine: $1,000

  • Level II

This level involves the presence of one grossly aggravating factor. At this level, judges can no longer suspend the minimum sentence. At level three, there’s a minimum of seven days in jail up to a maximum of 12 months. Maximum fine: $2,000

  • Level I

Two grossly aggravating factors can result in a minimum sentence of 30 days in jail up to a maximum of 24 months. Maximum fine: $4,000.

  • Level IA

The harshest punishments are at this level that requires the presence of three aggravating factors. The minimum jail sentence is 12 months and the maximum is 36 with no parole. Maximum fine: $10,000.

This broad overview does not include a number of other DWI scenarios that include drivers under 21, commercial vehicle drivers, drugged driving, test refusal and more.