Changes to North Carolina DWI Laws in 2012

North Carolina DWIs underwent a substantial overhaul in 2011, with the addition of a new sentencing level for the standard Misdemeanor DWI, the expansion of punishments, the addition of a new $100 administrative fee, and the change in definition of certain factors used in the determination of a person’s sentencing level.

In 2012, the changes have been far less dramatic, the most important of which is a modification to the State’s Felony Death or Serious Injury by Motor Vehicle law (also known as the Felony DWI death statute).

The statute, first drafted in 1973, creates felonies for people who have been convicted of killing or seriously injuring another person (including passengers of their own vehicles) as a result of impaired driving. It also creates a Class A1 misdemeanor for someone whose violation of traffic laws (other than impaired driving) causes the death of another person.

In the past, someone convicted felony death by motor vehicle was sentenced as a Class E felon. Because, by and large, someone convicted of a sentence usually has no prior criminal record, the typical defendant in such a case would only serve between 3 or 4 years.

In egregious cases – where there was a very high BAC DWI or very reckless driving – prosecutors might charge the defendant Second Degree Murder. Such was the case of Raymond Cook, a doctor convicted in 2011 of killing Elena Shapiro. But, as WRAL reports, jurors have been hard pressed to find the kind of reckless disregard for others that is required of Second Degree Murder in those cases.

Now the North Carolina General Assembly has increased the punishment for Felony Death by Motor Vehicle to a Class D. A Level 1 offender with no prior record can be sentenced to a minimum maximum term of 80 months – or nearly 7 years – effectively doubling the punishment.

The Class D range also gives the judge a lot of flexibility because the range of time is much wider.

Interestingly, the Class D felon typically is only eligible for an active sentence, but the statute does create an exception to allow a probationary sentence in Felony Death by Motor Vehicle cases where the judge thinks that outcome is appropriate. It would be a rare case where a judge might impose an intermediate sanction (aka probation).

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.