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Why Drunk Driving Charges Are Often Complicated

We all know that it's irresponsible to drive while intoxicated with alcohol or other substances. This much is straightforward. But when it comes to drunk driving charges, things get very complicated. There are many different types of charges you can face, and different standards set across the country, as well as different factors that can add complexity to your case.

How are you supposed to navigate this confusing space?

DUI, DWI, OWI, and More

Operating a vehicle while intoxicated with alcohol or other mind-altering substances is illegal pretty much everywhere, but each state has its own approach to intoxicated driving charges. These come in many varieties, with different names for charges (usually acronyms), different sanctions, and different criminal consequences.

For example, Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) is the most common acronym used in Michigan, but it’s not the only charge you might face if you drive while impaired. 

Operating While Visibly Impaired (OWVI) is a slightly lesser charge; it refers to a situation in which the suspect’s driving behavior was affected by alcohol, but with no firm evidence that their blood alcohol content (BAC) was at or above the legal limit. A first offense here is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days of probation, with fines and costs, community service, potential vehicle immobilization, and a restricted license.

An OWI is a much more serious charge in which there is firm evidence that the suspect had a BAC at or above the legal limit. Similar penalties apply, with 30 days of suspended license and 150 days of restricted license.

Many states use the acronyms DUI or DWI, though some states use them interchangeably. DUI stands for Driving Under the Influence, while DWI stands for Driving While Impaired. In some cases, these terms are distinguished based on the intoxicating substance; a DWI refers to a driver under the influence of alcohol, while a DUI refers to a driver under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both.

That said, there are exceptions to this; New Jersey, for example, typically uses DWI as its preferred nomenclature, but it covers intoxication with both alcohol and drugs. In Maryland, DWI and DUI charges are delineated based on measured BAC; DWI charges are for people with a BAC of 0.07 or higher, while DUI charges are for people with a BAC of 0.08 or higher.

Already, you can see why drunk driving charges are difficult for the layperson to understand. There are practically countless different terms for charges, different definitions of impairment, different penalties, and different prosecutorial approaches.

Additional Complexities

There are additional complexities to keep in mind as well.

  •       BAC vs. perceived impairment. A person can be intoxicated with a substance without technically exceeding the legal BAC limit. Conversely, a person can exceed the legal BAC limit without making them perceivably disoriented. This makes it difficult for many people to properly understand what the legal limits are. Obviously, the best course of action is to play it safe and avoid driving if you've had any alcohol or drugs, but it would be much easier to avoid these types of charges if you could be confident in your BAC and level of perception at all times. Unfortunately, this may never be the case.
  •       Driving infractions. Drunk driving charges are also complicated by surrounding conditions. Being pulled over for drifting over the center line temporarily is much less serious than being arrested after causing a fatal crash. There are many other related charges that can complicate your drunk driving charge.
  •       Testing and conditions. Police officers need to be very careful about how they determine a person's level of intoxication. Different states have different rules for how tests should be administered and how people should be evaluated; if a police officer doesn't follow proper protocols, the results of an administered test could be completely thrown out. Similarly, in some cases, refusing a test as a suspect can result in a conviction.
  •       Procedural compliance. Similarly, police officers are required to follow specific, formally outlined steps when processing paperwork for charges and arresting people. Any violations of proper procedures could complicate conviction possibilities.

Cutting Through the Confusion: Talk to a Lawyer

It's all very complicated and confusing, especially if you don't have a legal background. That's why it's so important to talk to a lawyer as soon as possible if you're suspected of driving while drunk or if you're dealing with any other criminal charges.

Initial consultations with lawyers who specialize in criminal defense are typically free or inexpensive, so there's no reason not to pursue one. It's also important to have a lawyer with you if you've been arrested, as your lawyer will help ensure that the police follow all proper procedures and provide you with advice on how to proceed. It’s the best way to protect yourself in an uncertain position.

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