North Carolina Drunk Driving Laws & Penalties

Penalties for Driving While Intoxicated, or DWI, in North Carolina are severe, and their application is strict. The sentencing structure is complicated, and requires that the judge weigh Grossly Aggravating Factors, Aggravating Factors, and Mitigating Factors, as well as the number of offenses, the age of the defendant, and whether the defendant was driving commercially.

Implied Consent to BAC Tests

North Carolina is an implied consent state, which means that by driving a vehicle in North Carolina you have already consented to a test of your Blood Alcohol Content, or BAC, if a police officer has reasonable suspicion that you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But, just because North Carolina is an implied consent does not necessarily mean that you should submit to the test. That's something you should discuss with your North Carolina DWI defense attorney.

Levels of Intoxication in NC DWI Laws

North Carolina is a "zero tolerance" state for intoxication under age 21, meaning that if you are under 21, any evidence of alcohol intoxication in is sufficient for conviction.

If you are 21 years or older, you can be convicted of DWI if you have a BAC in excess of .08% of above.

If you are driving a commercial vehicle, your BAC cannot exceed .04% alcohol.

"Wet Reckless"

North Carolina no longer accepts a plea bargain for the lesser offense of "wet reckless" as a way to negotiate a DWI.

DWI Penalties

Driving While Intoxicated is governed by North Carolina General Statutes (N.C.G.S.) Sections 20-179.

Vehicle Impound

When you are first charged with a DWI, your vehicle will be impounded for 10 days, and you must pay to have the vehicle released. Your driving privileges are revoked for a minimum of 30 days, until the Pre-Trial Hearing; however, your attorney can petition for limited driving privileges no sooner than 10 days after the DWI charge.

Sentencing Levels

North Carolina has 6 sentencing levels for DWIs, ranging from Level 5, the least severe, to Level 1 Aggravated, the most severe.

When sentencing a DWI Defendant, the judge evaluates, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether any Grossly Aggravating, Aggravating, or Mitigating Factors are present.

Grossly Aggravating Factors

  • A prior DWI conviction within the last 7 years
  • A DWI conviction while under suspension for another DWI
  • Serious injury to another person while Driving While Intoxicated
  • DWI with a child under the age of 18

1 Grossly Aggravating Factor = Level 2 sentence.

2 Grossly Aggravating Factors = Level 1 sentence

3 or more Grossly Aggravating Factors = Level 1 Aggravated sentence.

Level Jail Time Community Service Fine
Aggravated 1 Min 12 mo.; Max 36 mos. Not Available Up to $10,000
1 30 Days to 24 mos. Not Available Up to $4,000
2 7 days to 12 mos. Not Available Up to $2,000
3 Min. 72 hrs. -or- 72 hrs. Up to $500
4 Min. 48 hrs. -or- 48 hrs. Up to $500
5 Min. 48 hrs. -or- 48 hrs. Up to $200

To determine the sentence you will receive, the judge evaluates the evidence, weighing the presence of the following Aggravating and Mitigating factors, beyond a reasonable doubt.

Aggravating Factors

  • BAC of .15% or above
  • Reckless Driving or Cause an Accident
  • Whether your license was revoked at the time of the DWI
  • Prior DWI convictions
  • Speeding while trying to elude a police officer while DWI
  • Driving 30 mph or more over the speed limit while DWI
  • Illegally passing a school bus while DWI

Mitigating Factors

  • Slight impairment when no BAC test was available
  • Safe driving record
  • BAC not above .09%
  • Lawful operation of a vehicle, other than DWI, when charged
  • Whether the impairment was caused by prescription medicine taken in accordance with the prescription
  • Voluntary submission for a mental health assessment

If the Aggravating Factors outweigh the Mitigating Factors, the judge will impose a Level 3 sentence.

If there are no Aggravating or Mitigating Factors, or the Aggravating and Mitigating Factors are balanced, the judge will impose a Level 4 sentence.

If the Mitigating Factors outweigh the Aggravating Factors, the judge will impose a Level 5 sentence.

If this is not your first DWI charge within 7 years, the penalties are even more severe.

  2nd Offense 3rd Offense
Min. Jail Time 4 days 14 to 30 days up to 2 years
Fine & Penalty Varies Varies
License Suspension 1 to 4 years 1 year to permanent (prior DWI within the last 5 years)
Ignition Lock Required Required

Charged with a North Carolina DWI?

Contact the Experienced Outer Banks DWI Defense Attorneys at Sharp, Graham, Baker & Varnell, LLP Today

Penalties for DWI are strict and severe. If you have been charged with a DWI in North Carolina, you need an experienced lawyer to defend you against the charge of Driving While Intoxicated. Contact Sharp, Graham, Baker & Varnell, LLP today to speak with an experienced, well-respected DWI defense attorney. Call 252-261-2126, email, or complete our online form.