How Driving Under the Influence Differs from Driving While Intoxicated or Impaired
Every state has laws prohibiting persons from drinking and driving or using drugs or other controlled substances before getting behind the wheel. But not all states agree about how to label that particular offense.
- Some refer to it as DUI, and some call it DWI.
- Although DUI is generally considered an abbreviation for “driving under the influence,” not all states agree on what influence that may be. Some limit it to alcohol, whereas others include marijuana and other drugs.
- Some states use a separate term “DWI” to mean “driving while intoxicated,” in which case charges can be related only to consumption of alcohol. But in other states, DWI means “driving while impaired” and charges can involve other controlled substances.
- In some jurisdictions, a person can be charged with DWI (driving while intoxicated) only if they take a blood alcohol content (BAC) test and exceed the legal limit. It’s important to understand, though, that a person can be convicted of drinking and driving without submitting to a BAC test. For example, if a police officer observes an open bottle in or near the car, smells alcohol on the person’s breath, or witnesses behavior that suggests impairment or intoxication, a person can be charged and convicted on that evidence.
- At least three states—Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine—don’t use the terms “DUI” or “DWI.” Instead, they refer to the offense as “operating under the influence,” or OUI. The term OWI (operating while intoxicated) is on the books in some states as well.
Although the particular details of the charge vary from state to state, the particulars of the different terms are not that significant. If you’re stopped and charged with DUI, DWI, OUI, OWI, or even DWAI (driving while ability impaired), you can expect two components to the legal process:
- An administrative hearing to determine the status of your driving privileges—This proceeding typically is initiated as soon as the state’s department of motor vehicles receives notice of your DUI arrest. Because most states now send these notices electronically, the hearing to determine the status of your license typically takes place shortly after your arrest.
- A proceeding in criminal court to determine guilt or innocence, as well as penalties and sanctions—Unlike the administrative hearing, the criminal proceeding won’t commence until the prosecutor files charges against you. Though the police can detain you, it’s actually the prosecutor who files the criminal charges, based on evidence received from police. Often, it can be days or weeks before charges are filed.
As a general rule, allegations of drinking and driving are charged as a misdemeanor, although the charges can be elevated to a felony if you have a number of prior convictions or in other limited circumstances.