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How Likely Is Jail Time for First DWI in North Carolina?


North Carolina has a complex DWI sentencing statute. This law defines various factors considered during sentencing. These factors determine the minimum jail sentence a judge must impose.

Sentencing Levels for DWI

North Carolina law requires at least 24 hours of jail time for everyone convicted of DWI, including first-time offenders. But it also gives judges discretion to determine how you serve your time.

During your DWI trial, prosecutors must prove that you were doing one of the following:

  • Driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol
  • Driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 or higher
  • Driving with any detectable level of illegal drugs in your blood or urine

If you get convicted, the judge must conduct a sentencing hearing. At this hearing, the judge or jury will hear evidence of aggravating and mitigating factors. Your sentencing level depends on these factors. These levels include:

  • Level A1: Three or more grossly aggravating factors
  • Level 1: Two grossly aggravating factors or DWI with a child or disabled passenger
  • Level 2: One grossly aggravating factor other than a child or disabled passenger
  • Level 3: Aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors
  • Level 4: Aggravating factors balance mitigating factors
  • Level 5: Mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors

Someone at level A1 will receive the harshest sentence, while a driver at level 5 will receive the most lenient.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

The court can only consider factors proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Grossly aggravating factors include:

  • Being convicted of DWI within seven years of, or after arrest for, the current DWI
  • Driving on a license revoked due to DWI
  • Causing a serious injury in a DWI crash
  • Driving with a child or disabled passenger

Regular aggravating factors include the following:

  • Driving with a BAC over 0.15
  • Reckless driving
  • Negligent driving that caused an accident
  • Driving on a revoked license
  • Two prior traffic offenses within five years of the DWI
  • A prior impaired driving conviction within seven years of the DWI

The court can apply another aggravating factor for each of the following offenses committed at the same time as the DWI:

  • Fleeing or attempting to elude the police
  • Speeding at least 30 miles per hour over the limit
  • Passing a school bus with its red lights flashing

Your DWI defense can present mitigating factors, including:

  • Slight impairment due to alcohol only
  • Driving safely at the time of the offense
  • A safe driving record over the preceding five years
  • Impairment due to a lawfully prescribed and consumed prescription drug
  • Voluntary submission to a mental health facility after arrest for DWI
  • Completion of a substance abuse assessment and 60 days of sobriety

Lawyers cannot argue that alcoholism, addiction, or mental disability constitute mitigating factors.

Sentences for a First DWI

Judges must impose jail time at all DWI levels. But they have several ways to impose jail time without sending you to jail. Instead, the judge sentences you to the mandatory time and then:

  • Gives you credit for time served after your arrest
  • Suspends your jail sentence and places you on probation
  • Allows you to serve time by going to treatment or performing community service

Judges are more likely to exercise these options for lower levels of DWI. 

You may also be able to pursue a more favorable outcome by taking significant personal actions to prevent future DWIs, such as participating in rehab. 

Learn More About DWI Jail Sentences

Because of the complexity of North Carolina’s DWI statute, you may need legal help to estimate your sentence. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can determine which factors apply to your case.

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