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Is There a Difference Between DWI and DUI Charges?

What Do the Terms DUI and DWI Mean? Is the Legal Process the Same for Both? What About the Penalties?

DWI/DUIAccording to data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about one of every ten people hurt in motor vehicles is injured in a collision involving an impaired driver. Nearly 13% of all fatal automobile wrecks can be attributed to drunk drivers. For those reasons, state legislatures across the country have enacted comprehensive laws governing drinking and driving.

The terms used to describe the wrongful act, though, can be confusing:

  • The most common terms are DUI and DWI. Some states, such as Rhode Island, Maine, and Massachusetts, label the offenses as OUI/OWI—operating under the influence and operating while intoxicated or impaired, respectively. The offense is referred to as DWAI in at least one state—driving while ability impaired.
  • What is a DUI? In every state, DUI means “driving under the influence,” but not all states agree as to the scope of the offense. In some states, a DUI means driving under the influence of only alcohol, whereas other states apply the charge to any controlled substance, including marijuana and other drugs.
  • What is a DWI? Some states strictly define a DWI as “driving while intoxicated,” which limits its application to alcohol. Others expand the definition to mean “driving while impaired,” which can include contraband drugs as well.
  • Many states distinguish a DWI from a DUI based on the evidence supporting the charge. If the suspect takes and fails a blood alcohol content (BAC) test, that can be considered proof of intoxication to support a DWI charge. However, a failed BAC test is not required to convict a person for most offenses involving operating a vehicle while drunk or high. A police officer may make observations at the scene of the traffic stop, such as empty alcohol bottles in or near the car, drug paraphernalia or residue in the vehicle. Or the suspect might fail a field sobriety test. While circumstantial, such evidence can be sufficient to convict. Accordingly, some jurisdictions apply DUI charges when there is no BAC test but there is other evidence to support a conviction.

Is There Any Difference in How DUIs and DWIs Are Prosecuted?

DUIs and DWIs might be prosecuted differently depending on the jurisdiction. In Texas, for example, DUI charges are typically filed only in cases involving persons under the legal drinking age. Because adults will be charged with a DWI, that crime is considered a much more serious offense in the Lone Star State.

As an adult in Texas, you can expect both an administrative proceeding to determine the status of your driving privileges and an appearance in criminal court to establish guilt or innocence, as well as punishment. If the offender in Texas is only 16, the DUI charge is typically resolved in juvenile court. Minors aged 17 and older generally face DUI charges in the criminal courts.

When you’re stopped and arrested for DUI or DWI, don’t be surprised if the prosecutor files two different charges against you for the same offense. It’s common practice in many jurisdictions for prosecutors to file both of these:

  • A “per se” charge—This charge is based on the percentage of alcohol or drugs in your blood, using the BAC or drug test as evidence. It does not require proof of drunken behavior or impaired driving.
  • An “impairment” charge—This charge looks at circumstantial evidence that your driving was impaired and does not require direct proof of the amount of alcohol or drugs in your system. Examples of circumstantial evidence include the following:
    • Erratic driving
    • Slurred speech
    • Failure to pass a field sobriety test

Prosecutors typically file both charges in the hope that one or the other can be proved in court. Even if you are convicted of both charges, judges usually sentence for only one conviction.

Are the Penalties Different for DUI and DWI Convictions?

In many states, they are. Looking again at Texas as an example, consider the difference between a DUI conviction and a DWI conviction:

  • A minor convicted of DUI for the first time generally doesn’t face incarceration. Instead, the potential penalties include a fine of $500, mandatory alcohol awareness classes, a two-month suspension of driving privileges, and a minimum of 20 hours of community service.
  • After a first DWI conviction, an adult may be required to pay up to $2,000 in fines and can serve a jail term of up to six months. In addition, you can lose your right to drive for up to six months and be required to pay a surcharge of anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 every year (for three years) to keep your drivers license. The penalties can increase if the prosecutor considers the offense to be an aggravated DWI, ie., one involving a repeat offense or an extremely high level of impairment.

Consult the laws of your state to determine the range of punishments for DUI and DWI convictions.

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