It is easy to assume that DWI and DUI mean the same thing and carry with them the same type of legal consequences. In fact, DWI is its own unique legal term that can be different than DUI in some states. You can avoid getting a DWI on your criminal and driving record by learning what this charge is and in what ways states with DWI laws punish it today.
What is a DWI?
DWI stands for Driving While Intoxicated and refers to the act of driving a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. To be charged with a DWI, you must be operating a vehicle recognized under the state’s law. In some states, a vehicle can be a car, truck, motorcycle, or motor boat. In other states, a vehicle can include all of these as well as a moped or a bicycle.
When you are charged with Driving While Intoxicated, you are at a limit of alcohol consumption that makes you a danger to yourself and others in the public. You no longer have the fine motor skills or reflexes to operate a vehicle safely. You are at an increased risk of getting into an accident or causing harm to someone or something during the commission of your DWI.
Law enforcement officers across the country are trained to spot and pull over drivers who exhibit signs of DWI. Some of the more common behaviors of motorists who are Driving While Intoxicated include:
- driving over the center lane marker
- drifting over the shoulder of the road
- weaving across both lanes of traffic
- stopping suddenly without a good reason in the lane of traffic
- driving the wrong way on a highway or public road
- signaling that does not correlate with your driving actions
If you exhibit these signs while driving, you could be pulled over and tested for Driving While Intoxicated. Most states give officers the right to detain drivers suspected of DWI through their implied consent laws.
If you live in a state with implied consent laws, you are legally required to undergo field sobriety testing for DWI in exchange for the privilege of having a driver’s license. You cannot legally refuse a field sobriety or breathalyzer test. If you do refuse the test, you could be arrested and have your license suspended for up to one year.
The breathalyzer test indicates if you are over the 0.08 percent limit, which is the standard blood alcohol content used by most states. A field sobriety test reveals whether or not you have fine motor skills and reflexes to safely drive a car. If you fail either test, you could be arrested and charged with DWI under the state’s laws.
How is DWI Different than DUI?
In several states, DWI and DUI mean the same thing. They refer to the act of Driving While Intoxicated after drinking alcohol or using drugs. They carry with them the same or similar punishments regardless if you are charged with DUI or DWI in the state in which you live or are driving.
In other states, however, DWI and DUI are different. States that differentiate between the two use DWI to the act of Driving While Intoxicated after consuming either drugs or alcohol. DUI is reserved solely for Driving While Intoxicated after consuming alcohol.
With that, a charge of DWI can be more severe because it implies that you were Driving While Intoxicated after using either drugs or alcohol. It also means that you were so severely impaired that you put your safety as well as the safety of the public at risk of injury or death.
If you are charged with a DWI after using drugs, you likewise make your legal situation worse because you can be charged not only with Driving While Intoxicated but also for using illegal or prescription drugs while driving. The punishments in states that differentiate between DWI and DUI can be more severe for this charge and often carry with them the possibility of jail time.
To determine if you are drunk or high, the law enforcement officer that pulls you over will subject you to field sobriety tests which can include the use of a breathalyzer. A breathalyzer is a handheld device that you blow into to determine how much alcohol is in your breath. In most states, a reading of 0.08 percent or higher is over the legal limit, meaning you will probably be arrested for Driving While Intoxicated.
However, if you have been using drugs before driving, you also may be subjected to frisking, having your car searched, and a field sobriety test that determines your motor skills and reflex capabilities. You may be asked to walk in a straight line with your arms out to your side. You also may be asked to recite the alphabet backwards starting from a random letter. If you fail the tests or if the officer finds drugs in your car, you will be arrested for DWI.
After you are arrested, you will be taken to the police station for processing, and your vehicle will be impounded. You will have your fingerprints and mugshot taken. You also will have to give up your personal belongings like your phone and wallet or purse while you are in jail awaiting an arraignment hearing.
The hearing can take place the same day, or it might be held a few days later especially if you were arrested over a holiday break or on the weekend. The judge will not be available for a hearing until the next business day.
Before you are arraigned and formally charged, however, you will be given the chance to retain an attorney or have one appointed to you if you cannot afford one. Your lawyer can appear with you at the arraignment hearing.
You could be granted bail at the arraignment hearing if you are first-time offender or if you have not caused harm to property or human life during your DWI. If you cannot pay your bail amount in full, you could still be bonded out of jail if you can pay 10 percent of that amount. You may need to hire a bail bondsman to put up the money for you.
Once you are out of jail, it is important that you do not leave town or commit another DWI offense. You could be arrested and put in the county or city jail to await your trial or court date. The judge may not be as lenient as before if you commit another offense while out on bond.
Legal Penalties for DWI
The type of punishment you receive for a DWI will depend on whether or not you have been charged with this offense before or if you are first-time offender. It also will depend on the laws in the state in which you have been charged.
A first-time offense in states like Texas can result in penalties that include a fine of up to $2000, three to 180 days in jail, and a suspended driver’s license for up to a year. A first-time offense is classified as a Class A misdemeanor.
A second DWI charge will also be a Class A misdemeanor but carry with it penalties like a fine of up to $4000 and 30 to 180 days in jail. You also may have your driver’s license suspended for up to one year. Both first and second time offenses can be removed from you record after one year, however, if you complete a diversion program that may include attending alcohol rehabilitation and drug counseling courses.
Subsequent DWI charges bring with them more severe penalties including a fine of up to $10,000 and a possible jail sentence of up to two years. A third charge is classified as a third degree felony, making the offender ineligible for voting and owning a firearm. Offenders who had children under the age of 18 in their vehicles at the time of their DWIs could face an additional 180 days in jail and have their charges classified as a state felony.
The legal punishments are worse if you damaged public or private party or harmed or killed someone while Driving While Intoxicated. You could be sentenced to a state or federal prison for upwards of 20 years or more. You also may have to register as a drug offender and be ineligible for federal financial aid for school, adopting, being a foster parent, or working in professions like teaching.
Dealing with a DWI
It is simple enough to avoid a charge of Driving While Intoxicated and the legal consequences that come with it. To start, you can simply avoid drinking alcohol and using drugs. If you do not consume either of these substances, you will not reach the BAC limit that could result in you being arrested and charged with this crime.
Another alternative is to rely on a designated driver if you do not drink alcohol. Rather than drive yourself home, you can get home safely without being arrested for DWI if you allow a sober family member or friend to drive you.
Yet another way to avoid this charge is to know what your limit of alcoholic drinks is and to use a portable breathalyzer test that you can buy in most big box stores or online. These devices plug into your smartphone or clip onto your key chain. They let you know what your BAC level is and when it is time to quit drinking.
However, if you do find yourself charged with offense, it is critical that you retain a lawyer who specializes in DWI law. Your attorney can protect your rights and make sure you have been legally arrested and charged. If evidence suggests that you were sober or that the police officer administered the breathalyzer or field sobriety test wrong, your lawyer could ask the court to dismiss the charges against you.
Even if the charges are lawful, your attorney could help you avoid the harshest penalties including jail time and steep fines. Your lawyer may be able to argue down the charges against you or ask the court for a diversionary sentence that would allow the conviction to be expunged at a later date.
Being conviction of Driving While Intoxicated can have lasting ramifications on your life. You may find it impossible to find work or to get financing for a house or going to school. You also may lose friends and family members because of your choice to drive while high or inebriated.
Because of how damaging this charge can be to you and your loved ones, it is critical that you understand what it entails and how it is punished in most states. You also should appreciate the importance of retaining an experienced lawyer if you are facing this charge in court.