Written by attorney Damon John Chetson

Top 10 North Carolina DWI Myths

When I meet with clients about a DWI, they typically come to the meeting with pre-conceived ideas about how a case might go. This is because they've either seen a television show about a DWI or have had friends who have had DUIs or drunk driving charges in other states or jurisdictions. Let's talk about some of the common - the "Top Ten Myths about DWIs" - myths about a Driving While Impaired charge.

  1. My lawyer will be able to get a reduction in the DWI charge to a lesser crime! This is the most common myth. It comes from a belief that DWIs are routinely reduced to other crimes as a result of a plea bargain with the Wake County District Attorney or other prosecutor. This myth comes from people who have had friends or family who either in the past, or in other jurisdictions, have had their case handled by a reduction to a lesser included offense. For instance, while I don't practice law in New York, my understanding is that there is a lesser-included charge that commonly is the result of a plea bargain. Such reductions do not apply in North Carolina. As a result of N.C.G.S. 20-179.4, which explicitly makes DWI pleas difficult, the older practice of quietly reducing a DWI to a lesser charge (such as a careless and reckless) no longer happens except in very rare cases, especially in Wake County where the District Attorney has a long-standing policy against pleading down DWIs. The truth of the matter is that your case is either going to be won or lost after a trial, unless the State has trouble bringing a witness - such as the officer, an outside witness, or a chemical analyst - to court to prove your guilt.
  2. A DWI is not very serious. Before the 1980s, DWIs were regularly regarded as not very serious offenses. Former Vice President Dick Cheney got two DWIs in quick succession in his home state of Wyoming in the late 1960s, both of which were resolved by fines, but little additional punishment. Since the 1980s - and the advent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other anti-drunk driving organizations - DWI offenses have become much more serious crimes, such that today, in North Carolina, a DWI can be punished by up to $10,000 in fines and 36 months (three years!) in prison. Even a first-time DWI is serious with somewhere between $500 and $1,000 in fines, a year of probation, 24 to 48 hours of community service, alcohol substance abuses classes, and a suspended driver license for at least one year.
  3. I did not blow a .08 or above. Police can't prove a DWI! There are three ways to prove a DWI in North Carolina. First, any amount of an opiate is sufficient to prove a DWI. Second, a .08 or above on a chemical - blood, urine, or breathalyzer - test - is sufficient to provide a DWI. But what if you didn't blow a .08 or above? What then? A police officer may still be able to convince a judge that you were drunk driving, by showing that your behavior - while driving, while performing various Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, including the Walk & Turn, the One Leg Stand, and the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, sufficiently proved you were impaired while driving. While your case may be a better case if you blew under a .08, your case is not necessarily a winner simply because you blew under a .08.
  4. I was convicted by a judge of a DWI. I should just accept that judgment North Carolina has two levels of court for misdemeanors. All general misdemeanor DWIs are first handled in District Court, where a judge makes a determination about a defendant's guilt or innocence. Even where the case is not a good case for District Court, the case might stand a better chance in Superior Court where a jury makes a determination about a person's guilt. So, in order to fully understand whether you should accept a judge's determination, you should thoroughly discuss this matter with your attorney to decide whether to appeal the case to Superior Court for a jury trial.
  5. A DWI conviction will end my career, my ability to earn a living, and my place in the community. A DWI is certainly a serious matter - as described above. But some people are convinced that life will end if convicted of a DWI. In fact, a DWI is a fairly common phenomenon, which is not to excuse it. However. many people have had DWIs or drunk driving convictions, and go on to have successful careers and lives. For most people, a DWI is a wake-up call, spurring them to get healthier and be more safe on the roads. And while certain companies have zero tolerance rules about DWIs, a person with a DWI need not fear an inability to work or be productive again.
  6. I won't be able to drive with a DWI. A DWI will certainly impact your ability to drive, but many people will be eligible for Limited Driving Privileges (LDP) which enable them to drive to and from work or school, and drive for household-related purposes. In order to get these privileges, they will need to show proof of having taken a substance abuse assessment and begun treatment, proof of valid insurance, and a certified Driving Record that shows no DWIs within the prior 7 years. Unfortunately, a DWI conviction will cause an increase in insurance rates by up to 400 percent. And in cases where the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) exceeds .15, the person will need to have a Monitech Interlock device installed in their car. However, a single DWI conviction in most cases will not prevent someone from driving on a limited (provisional) license during the year-long license suspension.
  7. My DWI case will be resolved quickly. Most people come to our offices beliving that their case will be resolved in short order - maybe on the first court date or within a few months. Most DWIs - especially the ones that offer the best chance for success - are not going to be resolved within a few months, but rather will take anywhere from 6 months to a year to resolve in District Court in Wake County. This is in part because there are only four regular courtrooms (and one special courtroom) where DWIs and other misdemeanors are handled. Given the sheer volume of cases in Wake County, including drunk driving cases, a DWI can take months and months to resolve, such that it may take a year or more in certain cases. And even when the District Court case is resolved, the case may take another year or two in Superior Court if the defendant chooses to appeal the case.
  8. I was not drunk when the police stopped me. I can't be convicted of drunk driving. Many people assume that a DWI requires the state that prove that the person was drunk while driving. Not true. Since the 1960s, the North Carolina Supreme Court has made clear that impaired driving requires the state to prove that the person was "appreciably" or "noticeably" impaired. The state does not need to prove that the person was falling-down drunk, or even "materially" impaired. ( State v. Painter (,34)) The Court in the Painter case said: The following cases hold that there is a distinction between being drunk and being under the influence of intoxicating liquor, and that a driver of an automobile can be under the influence of intoxicating liquor within the intent and meaning of a statute prohibiting the operation of a motor vehicle "while under the influence of intoxicating liquor" without being drunk in the accepted meaning of that word
  9. I was not read my rights by the officer. My case will be dismissed. Many people assume that, since the officer did not read them their "rights," the case must be dismissed. While it may be true that a failure to read rights will create the conditions where a case may be dismissed, this is a rare occurrence. There are two points at which rights can be read in a DWI investigation. After the person has been arrested, but before the officer asks certain questions, the officer must read a person's Miranda Rights. However, if the officer never wishes to ask questions, the officer doesn't need to read rights. A person must also be informed about a second set of statutory implied-consent rights before the person is subject to an implied consent chemical analsys. Failure to read these rights may result in the barring of the breath test from admission in court. But there are many ways a DWI may be proved otherwise, including if the officer was able to get a search warrant for a blood or urine test rather than going through the implied-consent route.
  10. A DWI cannot be won! It's hopeless. Actually, while a DWI is in many cases hard to win, it's possible - especially with a good Raleigh DWI lawyer - to win a DWI. All DWIs can't be won, however. But many, depending on the facts, may be won, especially cases where the police may have difficulty proving impairment, where there was an accident or an inability of the officer to prove the person was the driver, and cases where the blood or chemical analysis (Intox EC/IR II) results are relatively low, or were improperly performed.
  11. All DWI cases require a good, effective, and professional DWI lawyer. But cases that look hopeless especially require a thorough lawyer who will examine all aspects to find out where the weaknesses are in the State's case.

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