DUI Penalties in North Carolina

DUI Arrest
Getty Images/ Darren Mower

Getting behind the wheel when you've had too much to drink is never a good idea for a whole bunch of different reasons, not the least of which is what may happen to you if you are caught by law enforcement. This is true no matter where you go in the United States, including North Carolina. And, like most other states, the trend in North Carolina is towards longer and harsher penalties for driving under the influence.

In fact, laws regarding drinking and driving in North Carolina are among the strictest in the nation. One of the best ways to discourage drunk driving is through better education. Simply put, those with a clear understanding of its consequences are much less likely to do it. 

Blood Alcohol Content

North Carolina employs a system of blood alcohol content (BAC) level limits to determine what is considered to be legal impairment. The basic limits are:

  • 0.08%: Non-commercial drivers 21 years of age or older.


  • 0.04%: While operating a commercial motor vehicle.


  • 0.00% (Zero Tolerance): Drivers under the age of 21.

These basic limits are further restricted for a driver whose license has been restored following a suspension for DWI:

  • 0.04% for non-commercial drivers on a first license restoration, 0.00% on a second or subsequent restoration.


  • 0.00%: following conviction for DWI in a commercial motor vehicle, driving after consuming drugs or alcohol under 21 years of age, or conviction of felony death.

    Remember, these BAC limits are the levels at which a driver can be arrested for DWI regardless of any observed impairment. Drivers can still be arrested for DWI with lower BAC levels if it is determined that they are "under the influence" at the time of the arrest.

    Refusing a BAC Test

    If you are stopped by a law enforcement officer who suspects you of being under the influence, you may be required to perform a field sobriety test and/or a preliminary breath test.

    If you refuse to be tested, your license will immediately be revoked for a minimum of 30 days. The officer may still require you to submit to a blood test which you may not refuse. In addition to this 30-day revocation, your license will be revoked by the DMV for one year even if you later submit to the blood test.

    Penalties for a DWI Conviction

    Penalties for DWI in North Carolina are determined at a post-conviction sentencing hearing at which the State will present evidence of any aggravating circumstances and the defendant will present evidence of any mitigating circumstances. The judge will then balance these aggravating and mitigating circumstances in deciding the proper penalties to be handed down.

    Aggravating factors considered include: gross impairment, where the defendant's BAC is 0.15% or higher; driving with a revoked license; prior convictions for impaired driving; especially reckless or dangerous driving; driving with a child passenger, or one with a mental or physical disability.

    Mitigating factors include: prior safe driving record; slight impairment of faculties due solely to alcohol; voluntary submission to assessment and recommended treatment; impairment due to lawfully prescribed drugs taken within the prescribed dosage.

    All other relevant aggravating and mitigating circumstances will also be considered.

    After balancing the varying circumstances, the judge will then select from among six sentencing levels, Level 5 being the most lenient, Aggravated Level 1 the most severe. Penalties for each level include:

    • Level 5 (most common for first-time offenders): Fine of up to $200; Imprisonment of between 24 hours and 60 days, with a possible suspension of time upon completion of 24 hours in jail, 24 hours of community service or a combination of the two.


    • Level 4: Fine of up to $500; Imprisonment of between two and 120 days, with possible suspension of sentence upon completion of 48 hours in jail, 48 hours of community service or a combination of the two.


    • Level 3: Fine of up to $1,000; Imprisonment of between three days and six months, with possible suspension after 72 hours imprisonment, 72 hours of community service or a combination of the two.


      • Level 2: Fine of up to $2,000; Imprisonment of between seven days and 12 months, with possible suspension after seven days in jail.


      • Level 1: Fine of up to $4,000; Imprisonment of between 30 days and 24 months, with possible suspension after 30 days in jail.


      • Aggravated Level 1: Fine of up to $10,000; Imprisonment of between 12 and 36 months, with possible suspension after at least 120 days in jail.


      Additional Penalties

      There's more. 

      • License Suspension: Drivers convicted of multiple DWI's will face additional penalties such as license suspension of up to four years (with second conviction within three years of the first) and between one year and permanent suspension (with third or subsequent conviction within five years of the previous one).


      • Ignition Interlock Device: A driver convicted of a DWI with a BAC of 0.15% or higher, or of a subsequent offense within seven years of a previous DWI conviction, will be required to install an ignition interlock device on his or her vehicle.


      • Vehicle Forfeiture: If a driver is charged with DWI while driving on a revoked license due to a previous DWI, the driver's vehicle will be seized at the time of the arrest. If that driver is later convicted of the subsequent DWI, his or her vehicle will be forfeited and sold.