So recently, I read an article about a driver in Buncombe County who was recently convicted of his 17th DWI and was sentenced to 7 years in prison. Now, while many of you may expect it, this Raleigh DWI Attorney is not coming to the defense of the repeat offender and the harsh sentence he has received. Given the number of times he has been convicted, I honestly don’t believe 7 years is necessarily inappropriate.
What bothered me more about this article was the quote from the District Attorney for that county, Ron Moore. He stated “In North Carolina for a first offense you don’t serve a minute in jail. You generally get a 60-day suspended sentence. You can get a limited driving privilege, and you have to do 24 hours of community service. There is not a lot of deterrent value. If you had to spend a week in jail, then maybe it would deter you from that behavior.”
This idea that North Carolina is somehow ‘light’ on DWI charges is ridiculous. North Carolina has very serious sentences for DWI convictions, including first offenders. Where before in North Carolina, as well as presently in other states, certain first offenders may be eligible for a reduction to a ‘Careless and Reckless’ charge, or to participate in some type of ‘First-Offenders DWI’ Program where the charges would be reduced upon successful completion. But not in present day North Carolina. No, if you are charged with a DWI, it has been the experience of this Wake County DUI Attorney that there are no opportunities for a reduction of the charge. In fact, your only chance of avoiding a DWI conviction is by winning at trial.
Also, the statements by District Attorney Moore over simplifies the reality of a DWI conviction. First, he is describing a Level 5 Sentence, which is the lowest possible sentence a Driver can receive for a DWI conviction in North Carolina. Depending on Aggravating and Grossly Aggravating Factors, a Driver can face a much more serious sentence then just 24 hours of community service. Even at a Level 5, a Defendant can expect to pay between $500-$700 in court costs and fines at the time of conviction, which does not include the 400% increase to the insurance premium for the next three years and any costs you incurred immediately after the arrest, including the cost of hiring an attorney. Additionally, all DWI convictions in North Carolina carry with it mandatory Substance Abuse Assessment and follow up treatment so Driver’s are learning the risks of substance abuse.
In addition, a Limited Driving Privilege is no small slap on the wrist. The driver is limited to driving Monday – Friday from 6:00 am to 8:00 PM for ‘work, school or household needs.’ Now, there is some debate about what constitutes ‘household needs’ but some Police Officers may feel that a Driver out during those times, who isn’t specifically driving for the benefit of his or her household is in violation of the privilege, which could lead to a revocation. Additionally, should a driver have a blood/alcohol concentration of .15 or above in North Carolina, they will not be eligible for a Limited Driving Privilege for the first 45 days after being convicted and are required to have an Interlock Device installed on the vehicle for one year, all at the cost to the Defendant. Imagine your life if you were not able to drive for a week, let alone a month and a half?!
Now, I’m sure some people think that I am minimizing the risks of Driving While Impaired, I can assure you I am not. Driving drunk is risky and endangers the lives of the Driver, their passengers, as well as the public in general. However, DWI’s have gotten so built up that we are sentencing people for the damage they could have done, not what they actually did!
Rest assured, if a Drunk Driver causes a wreck, it will be factored into their sentencing so they can receive a harsher sentence then if they hadn’t gotten in a wreck. Caused serious bodily injury? That’s a Grossly Aggravating Factor and would be a minimum, mandatory 7 days in jail. Prior DWI in the last 7 years? Same thing. Passenger in the vehicle under the age of 18? Level 1, minimum, mandatory 30 days in jail! That means if you are a first time offender, with a BAC of .08 and a 17 year old in the car (think about high schoolers coming home from a party or prom) and they are convicted, 30 days in jail.
It’s craziness to me that DWI’s are treated this way. The fact that the Defendant is participating in a risky activity results in a sentence that would appear to address the potential harm, instead of the actual harm caused. Let’s think of this in another way. North Carolina has passed laws against texting while driving. Some cities have even passed laws against using phones all together. There are those who believe that the use of a cell phone while driving is as dangerous as driving while impaired. Certainly there are plenty of stories out there about people who have been injured or killed because of someone texting or driving. Should we treat those who were caught texting and driving as harshly as those who have killed while texting and driving? Of course not, the punishment wouldn’t fit the crime.
Here’s another way to think of this. I have a client who was associated with a fight in school. One of the young boys broke the eye socket of another boy during the fight. That young boy was charged with Assault and Battery. Having never been in trouble before, will have his case dismissed after he participated in a First Offender’s program, which includes community service and classes. There will be no monetary costs that he will incur from the criminal charge. However, most of my clients are first offenders, and many of those are low BAC DWI’s who did not injure anyone at all and will have their life seriously disrupted, incur thousands of dollars in costs (once you add up court costs, legal fees, and insurance costs) and have their ability to drive restricted for the next year. How is this fair? If we take the DWI sentencing logic and apply it the fight, the boy should face a sentence that reflects the injury he could have cause as a result of the fight. The boy could have suffered brain injury or even death, so let’s treat this case the same as if it did occur?
Okay, I think I have been up on my Soapbox long enough. Let me say again, I don’t advocate Driving While Impaired or even think that people shouldn’t face some of the consequences, but for a District Attorney to suggest that every single first-time offender of a Class 1 Misdemeanor should face a mandatory 7 day jail sentence is ludicrous. I think common sense needs to prevail and be applied to these cases. As it were, due to special interest groups (M.A.D.D. I’m looking at you), there is little chance that will ever happen.