The Punishment for A DWI Conviction in North Carolina

Unfortunately, North Carolina is one of the harshest states in the country in terms of DWI sentencing, and Wake County in particular has extremely stringent policies about how DWI’s are handled. Specifically, in Wake County there are no plea bargains offered for a driving while impaired offense meaning that if you’ve been charged with a DWI, you have to fight the DWI or take a plea to the DWI. It will not be reduced to a reckless driving or some other lesser offense. Given this, many clients call with the question, “Am I going to jail?” The answer in most cases is no, although there are particular circumstances in which an active sentence can indeed be imposed. So how is sentencing determined for a DWI in North Carolina?

Upon a conviction, whether by plea or by trial, a judge will hear a presentation of aggravating and mitigating factors. The judge will balance those factors, as well as the evidence from the case to determine the appropriate sentencing level. In North Carolina, there are six different sentencing level for a driving while impaired offense as outlined in NCGS§ 20-179.

Most of our clients fall into the most lenient sentencing level, a Level 5 N.C.G.S. § 20-179(k), because they meet the following criteria:

  • No aggravating or mitigating factors present or mitigating factors outweigh any aggravating factors
  • 24 hours in jail minimum and 120 days maximum or 24 hours of community service (almost all clients choose the community service)
  • If probation is imposed (which it always is), the defendant is required to undergo a substance abuse assessment and comply with any recommended treatment.
  • Court costs and fines

The next most serious sentencing level is Level 4 N.C.G.S. § 20-179(j):

  • No aggravating or mitigating factors present or aggravating factors are substantially counterbalanced by any mitigating factors
  • Jail of 48 hours minimum and 120 days maximum, or 48 hours of community service (most choose community services)
  • If probation is imposed, the defendant is required to undergo a substance abuse assessment and comply with any recommended treatment.
  • Court costs and fines

Level Three N.C.G.S. § 20-179(i):

  • No grossly aggravating factors present and aggravating factors substantially outweigh any mitigating factors
  • Jail of 72 hours minimum and 6 months maximum, or 72 hours of community service
  • If probation is imposed, the defendant is required to undergo a substance abuse assessment and comply with any recommended treatment.
  • Court costs and fines

Level Two N.C.G.S. § 20-179(h):

  • No minor child under the age of 18 present in the vehicle and only one other grossly aggravating factor is present
  • Jail of minimum of 7 days and maximum of 12 months
    • Imprisonment term may be suspended only if a condition of special probation is imposed including a minimum term of imprisonment of 7 days,
    • OR: If the individual is ordered to abstain from consuming alcohol for at least 90 consecutive days, as verified by a continuous alcohol monitoring system, of a type approved by the Division of Adult Correction of the Department of Public Safety. Up to 60 days of pretrial credit may be granted against the 90-day requirement, for voluntary alcohol monitoring prior to judgment.
      • If the defendant is subject to Level Two punishment as a result of a prior DWI conviction or driving on a license revoked as a result of a prior DWI, AND the conviction for a prior offense involving impaired driving occurred within five years before the date of the offense for which the defendant is being sentenced and the judge suspends all active terms of imprisonment and imposes abstention from alcohol as verified by a continuous alcohol monitory system, then the judge MUST also impose as an additional condition of special probation that the defendant must complete 240 hours of community service.
  • Court costs and fines

Level One N.C.G.S. § 20-179(g):

  • A child under the age of 18 is present in the vehicle or any two other grossly aggravating factors are present
  • Jail: Minimum of 30 days, maximum of 24 months
    • Imprisonment term may be suspended only if a condition of special probation is imposed including a minimum term of imprisonment of 30 days
      • A judge may reduce the minimum term of imprisonment required to a term of not less than 10 days if a condition of special probation is imposed to require that a defendant abstain from alcohol consumption and be monitored by a continuous alcohol monitoring system, of a type approved by the Division of Adult Correction of the Department of Public Safety, for a period of not less than 120 days. Pre-trial credit of up to 60 days may be given for alcohol monitoring prior to judgment, toward the 120-day period.
    • If probation is imposed:
      • Probation will include the requirement that the defendant undergo a substance abuse assessment and related treatment or education
      • Probation may include a requirement of abstaining from alcohol, monitored by a continuous alcohol monitoring system, for anywhere between a minimum period of 30 days, up to the maximum of the term of probation
  • Court costs and fines

Aggravated Level One N.C.G.S. § 20-179(f3):

  • Three or more grossly aggravating factors are present
  • Minimum of 12 months, maximum of 36 months in jail
    • Imprisonment term can be suspended only if a condition of special probation is imposed requiring a minimum term of imprisonment of at least 120 days
    • If probation is imposed, it must include the condition that the defendant abstain from alcohol for at least 120 days and undergo a substance abuse assessment and related treatment or education
  • Court costs and fines

Clearly, the burden on a DWI defendant is high, even at a Level Five. Seek the help of an experienced Raleigh DWI attorney to help fight your case.

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.