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North Carolina DWI Laws

North Carolina has some of the harshest and most complex penalties for driving under the influence (DUI), also called drugged and drunk driving.

Ending up with a driving while intoxicated (DWI) charge, as they're called in North Carolina, can happen for many reasons. We make mistakes in judgment, or maybe there's a bigger problem. A DWI is always taken seriously.

Learn more about North Carolina's driving while impaired (DWI) charges and penalties.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limits and Implied Consent

"Per Se" BAC Limit 0.08%
Zero Tolerance (Underage) BAC Limit 0.01%
Enhanced Penalty (Aggravated) BAC Limit 0.15%
Implied Consent to Submit to BAC Test? Yes

Select Penalties

Minimum License Suspension or Revocation (1st, 2nd, 3rd offense) 1 year, 4 years, Permanent
Mandatory Alcohol Education, Assessment and Treatment Both
Vehicle Confiscation Possible? Yes
Ignition Interlock Device Possible? Yes


Disclaimer: State laws are subject to change through the passage of new legislation, ballot initiatives, rulings in the higher courts, including federal decisions, and by other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state laws you are researching.

North Carolina DWI Laws

North Carolina prohibits anyone from driving on a public area or roadway when:

  • Under the influence of an impairing substance
  • Schedule I controlled substance or its metabolite is present in your blood or urine
  • Your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08% or greater
  • Your BAC is 0.04% if operating a commercial vehicle

A vehicle can include a bicycle or an electric bicycle.

Per Se DWI Offense

North Carolina recognizes a per se DWI when your BAC is 0.08% or greater, or 0.04% when operating a commercial vehicle. A per se offense only requires evidence of your BAC being over the legal limit and that you were driving to prosecute you on a DWI charge. The police officer does not have to show that you were actually intoxicated.

North Carolina's DUI laws will allow a DWI charge if your BAC is under 0.08%. In that instance, law enforcement will need proof you were behaving intoxicated. This could include weaving while driving, slurring your words, or being unsteady.

Implied Consent Law and Chemical Testing

When you drive on public roads and highways in North Carolina, the law deems that you consent to chemical tests when a police officer arrests you on suspicion of driving impaired.

When a police officer stops you, they ask you to take a preliminary breath and perform field sobriety tests. Before your arrest, you may refuse these without penalty. This refusal will not stop your arrest if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that you drove while intoxicated.

After your arrest, the officer will advise you about further chemical tests. These include an evidentiary breath test, blood, urine, or saliva testing. You can still refuse these chemical tests, but you will immediately lose your driver's license for 30 days, pending a hearing with the department of motor vehicles (DMV). If you lose this hearing or fail to request one, your license suspension is for one year. You must serve this suspension even if your DWI gets dismissed or you're found not guilty.

The officer can get a warrant to compel you to cooperate if you refuse chemical tests. The court can enter evidence of your refusal against you during your criminal case.

DWI Penalties

DWI penalties are both criminal and administrative. The court system will handle the criminal part of your charge. The North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) oversees administrative aspects involving your driver's license suspension and requirements.

A first or second offense is generally a misdemeanor charge if you are at least 21 and did not cause an accident. A third and subsequent DWI is a felony charge.

Three DWI convictions within seven years will earn you the label of a habitual offender. A judge may require forfeiture of your vehicle.

Sentencing Structure

If convicted of a DWI, you will face a criminal sentencing hearing. The judge will consider many factors when deciding your sentence. Specific requirements are mandatory. For instance, all convictions require a substance abuse assessment before sentencing. The judge will include any recommended treatment in your sentence.

North Carolina has a complex DWI sentencing structure. There are six levels of punishment the judge can impose after conviction. The DWI sentencing levels range from Aggravated Level One, which is the most serious, to Level Five, which is the least severe.

For a first offense, you may face the following sentences:


Number of Aggravating Factors

Maximum Fine

Jail Time

Hours of Community Service


Continuous Alcohol Monitoring

Level 5

More mitigating than aggravating factors


24 hours to 60 days

48 hours

At the judge's discretion, as part of probation

Level 4

None or an equal number of aggravating or mitigating factors


48 hours to 120 days

48 hours

At the judge's discretion, as part of probation

Level 3

More aggravating than mitigating factors


72 hours to 6 months

72 hours

At the judge's discretion, as part of probation

Level 2

1 gross aggravating factor


7 days to 1 year

240 hours if a gross aggravating factor is present

90 days

Level 1

2 gross aggravating factors or transporting a vulnerable person


30 days to 2 years


120 days

Aggravated Level 1

3 or more gross aggravating factors


1 to 3 years


120 days following jail sentence

Your penalties increase substantially after a first offense.

Aggravating, Grossly Aggravating, and Mitigating Factors

The judge will consider aggravating and mitigating factors present in your DWI case. If you didn't admit to any aggravating factors, a jury must decide if they are present. Aggravating and gross aggravating factors increase the severity of your sentence and penalties. A mitigating factor may cancel out an aggravating factor. Grossly aggravating factors cannot be canceled out or mitigated.

Grossly aggravating factors include:

  • Prior DWI convictions in any state within the previous seven years
  • Driving with a revoked license
  • Causing serious injury to another
  • Transporting a minor child under 18
  • Transporting a person with the developmental age of a minor
  • Transporting a person with a physical disability that requires help

Aggravating Factors:

  • BAC of 0.15% or greater
  • Dangerous or reckless driving
  • Causing an accident
  • Driving a suspended or revoked license
  • Two or more prior convictions on your driving record of three points or more
  • Speeding 30 miles or more over the limit
  • Passing a stopped school bus
  • Fleeing or attempting to elude police officers
  • Any other factor the judge may consider aggravating

Mitigating Factors can cancel out an aggravating factor. These include:

  • BAC of 0.09% or less
  • Evidence of slight impairment, but no chemical test is available
  • Driving safely and within the law
  • Clear driving record or no serious offenses
  • Completed alcohol assessment and treatment before sentencing
  • Voluntarily submitting to a mental health screening
  • Completion of 60 days of continuous alcohol monitoring
  • Impairment caused by a lawfully prescribed medication taken as directed
  • Other mitigating factors, as decided by the judge

Administrative Penalties

When arrested, you lose your license immediately. However, you have a 30-day window before your license revocation begins. You have 10 days to challenge your suspension with the DMV.

In addition to the license suspension you receive after your arrest, you face further suspension after conviction.

For a first offense, you lose your license for one year. A second offense suspends your license for three years. A third offense revokes your license permanently.

You must complete the Alcohol and Drug Education Traffic School (ADETS) program and undergo a substance abuse assessment and treatment before you are eligible to have your license reinstated.

Ignition Interlock Device and Limited Driving Privileges

You may be eligible for limited driving privileges during your suspension period. To be eligible, you must complete the required substance abuse assessment and install an ignition interlock device in any vehicle you intend to drive.

An ignition interlock device (IID) installs into your vehicle's ignition system. To drive, you must provide a breath sample into the IID. If the device detects any alcohol, your car won't start. If you're clear, the IID will prompt you to submit random samples during your drive to make sure you are sober. Tampering with or trying to sidestep the IID is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

The length of your IID requirement depends on what level of sentencing you face. If sentenced under Aggravated Level One, Level One, or Level Two, your IID requirement will extend one year after your license suspension.

If sentenced under Level Three or higher, the IID is only required during your license suspension.

Zero Tolerance and Underage DWIs

It is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to possess or drink alcohol. If you're stopped by law enforcement for suspicion of DWI and found to have any alcohol or drugs in your system, anything above 0%, you will immediately lose your driver's license for 30 days. This is North Carolina's zero-tolerance law.

If convicted, your license suspension is for one year. Anyone 18 or older may apply for limited driving privileges, so long as this is your first offense.

An under-21 DWI is a Class 2 misdemeanor. Sentencing is up to the judge but will likely include a substance abuse assessment, treatment, education, and fines.

North Carolina DWI Resources

Get Professional Help From a North Carolina DWI Attorney

North Carolina takes a hard line against DWIs. They don't allow you expungement or plea bargains. DWI conviction on your criminal record can exclude you from jobs, scholarships for college, housing, and other aspects of your life. A skilled DWI attorney will help you with the next steps and advise you about the possible outcomes of your case. Find an experienced North Carolina DWI defense attorney today.

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