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What Are NC DWI Levels?

In North Carolina, it’s crucial to understand DWI (Driving While Impaired) laws. If you ever drink alcohol or even take prescription medication before driving, knowing the law can help you understand what could happen next. Our state has various DWI sentencing levels, each with its own set of consequences that could significantly impact your life.

In this blog, we will delve into the different DWI levels in North Carolina, seeing what legal implications one may find when faced with DWI charges.

What Factors Does a North Carolina Court Look At?

When it comes to driving under the influence in North Carolina, the law takes it very seriously. If law enforcement catches you, you could face one of several levels of punishment, depending on the specifics of your situation.

Here’s a simple breakdown of how it works. When deciding your punishment, the court looks at three types of factors:

Grossly Aggravating Factors Involved

If you face conviction for a DWI, the court first identifies any grossly aggravating factors that significantly influence the level of punishment. The presence of grossly aggravating factors elevates the offense to a higher punishment level.

  • Prior DWI convictions within seven years.
  • Driving with a revoked license due to impaired driving.
  • Serious injury to another person caused by the driver’s impaired driving.
  • Having a passenger under the age of 18.

Aggravating Factors Involved

In the absence of grossly aggravating factors, the court weighs the aggravating against the mitigating factors to determine a fair punishment level. This assessment is nuanced and considers the overall impact and intent behind your actions.

Aggravating factors include:

  • Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0.15 or more.
  • Motor vehicle offense such as reckless or dangerous driving.
  • A reportable accident resulting from the defendant’s impaired driving.
  • Driving while license revoked for other traffic offenses, among others.

Whether Mitigating Factors Outweigh the Aggravating Factors

Mitigating factors are present when you have done many of the right things, such as pulling over when stopped by law enforcement. Or perhaps you were taking a medication at the prescribed dosage and didn’t realize it could cause an impaired driving offense.

Maybe you had one glass of wine with dinner, and your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was at .09. In this case, perhaps you thought you were good to drive and never meant to get on the road and engage in an offense involving impaired driving. You were driving with only a slight impairment vs. way over the legal limit.

Mitigating factors include:

  • Having a lower level of alcohol in your blood (.09 BAC or less)
  • Safe and lawful driving at the time of the offense.
  • A safe driving record.
  • Lawful prescription drug impairment, among others​

NC DWI Levels

In North Carolina, driving while impaired (DWI) is treated as a grave offense, and the law is structured to reflect the severity of such misconduct on the roads.

Aggravated Level One

The Aggravated Level One punishment is designated for the most severe DWI offenses and is meted out when there are three or more grossly aggravating factors present in a case.

Financial Penalty

One of the penalties under Aggravated Level One is a financial fine of up to $10,000. This hefty fine serves multiple purposes: it acts as a deterrent, discouraging individuals from engaging in reckless behavior that leads to DWI; it also serves as a punitive measure, holding individuals financially accountable for their actions.


A more severe penalty under Aggravated Level One is imprisonment. The law mandates a prison term that includes a minimum period of not less than 12 months and a maximum term of not more than 36 months.

This imprisonment term is non-negotiable and cannot be reduced, even if the defendant is otherwise eligible for parole. The rigidity of this term underscores the seriousness with which North Carolina views DWI offenses, especially those falling under Aggravated Level One.

Level One

For two grossly aggravating factors, Level One punishment is a notch below the most severe level, Aggravated Level One. It’s designated for cases with substantial legal weight, specifically when two grossly aggravating factors exist.

Financial Penalty

Under Level One, the court can impose a fine of up to $4,000.


The law stipulates a range of imprisonment that includes a minimum term of not less than 30 days and a maximum of not more than 24 months.

However, the judge may reduce the minimum term of imprisonment to not less than 10 days if they issue a condition of special probation requiring the defendant not to consume alcohol, as verified by a continuous alcohol monitoring system, for not less than 120 days.

Level Two

Level two punishment applies if the offender displays one grossly aggravating factor at the time of the offense. It’s a step down from Level One punishment, yet signifies a serious breach of law, warranting significant penalties due to a singular grossly aggravating factor.

Financial Penalty

In instances of Level Two punishment, the court has the authority to impose a fine of up to $2,000.


The law mandates imprisonment for those subjected to Level Two punishment. In North Carolina, for a Level Two DWI offense, the term of imprisonment is typically not less than 7 days and not more than 12 months. However, the exact duration within this range can be influenced by the specifics of the case and the judge’s discretion. This term of imprisonment seeks to reflect the seriousness of the offense while providing a scope for judicial discretion based on the unique circumstances of each case.

Level Three

When a case of Driving While Impaired (DWI) doesn’t have any grossly aggravating factors, but the aggravating factors substantially outweigh any mitigating factors, the law imposes Level Three punishment.

This level of punishment represents a moderate severity in the legal framework addressing DWI offenses in North Carolina.

Financial Penalty

Under Level Three, the court can impose a fine of up to $1,000.


In North Carolina, the term of imprisonment for a Level Three DWI offense typically ranges from 72 hours to 6 months. However, the exact duration within this range may be influenced by the specifics of the case and the judge’s discretion. This range of imprisonment reflects a moderate level of severity in the legal framework addressing DWI offenses in the state.

However, unlike the higher levels of punishment, Level Three provides a more flexible imprisonment term, reflecting the lesser severity of the offense compared to cases with grossly aggravating factors. In addition, this prison sentence is typically suspended, meaning it won’t be served right away. Rather the person is placed on probation with certain conditions they need to meet in order to avoid ever serving the jail time. 

Level Four

Level Four punishment is designated for DWI offenses that are less severe when compared to the higher levels. This level generally applies when there are no grossly aggravating factors and the aggravating and mitigating factors are balanced, or there are no aggravating factors at all.

Financial Penalty

Under Level Four, the court can impose a fine of up to $500.


The term of imprisonment for Level Four punishment typically ranges from 48 hours to 120 days. However, the judge has the discretion to suspend the sentence on the condition that the offender does the following:

  • Spends 48 hours in jail or Performs 48 hours of community service

This provision provides a flexible approach, allowing the judge to tailor the punishment to the individual circumstances of the case while ensuring that a minimal level of punishment is enforced to uphold the law.

Level Five

Level Five is the most lenient punishment under North Carolina’s DWI laws. It’s applied to cases where the mitigating factors substantially outweigh any aggravating factors. This level seeks to address offenses that are less severe yet still require legal intervention to uphold public safety standards.

Financial Penalty

Under Level Five, the court can impose a fine of up to $200.


For Level Five punishment, imprisonment typically ranges from 24 hours to 60 days. However, the law provides a flexible approach, allowing the judge to suspend the sentence on the condition that the offender does the following:

  • Spends 24 hours in jail or Performs 24 hours of community service

This flexibility allows for a tailored punishment based on the unique circumstances of the case while ensuring a minimal level of accountability and deterrence is maintained.

Other Factors in DWI Sentencing

The exact nature of the imprisonment and other possible penalties might be influenced by the specific circumstances of the offense and other related factors, such as whether or not it’s a repeat offense or if other crimes were committed at the same time.

Beyond the fine and imprisonment, a judge may also impose other lawful conditions, such as:

  • Substance abuse assessment and treatment
  • Abstaining from alcohol consumption
  • Undergoing continuous alcohol monitoring.
  • Special probation

Unpacking the Legal Process Post-Conviction

If you face conviction for a DWI offense in North Carolina, you enter a structured legal process to determine the level of punishment for your offense’s severity and surrounding circumstances.

Here’s an overview of the subsequent phases:

Sentencing Hearing

The sentencing hearing is a pivotal stage where the court delves into the case’s specifics, scrutinizing the presence of grossly aggravating, aggravating, and mitigating factors as outlined in the previous section.

The provisions of § 20-179 of the North Carolina General Statutes make up the hearing’s foundations ​(1,​​2,​​3)​

Imposition of Punishment

Based on the findings from the sentencing hearing, the judge imposes a punishment corresponding to one of the DWI levels.

Each level carries a defined range of penalties, including fines, imprisonment, and other conditional measures such as probation or alcohol monitoring.

Fines and Imprisonment

The fines and duration of imprisonment escalate with the severity of the punishment level. For instance, Aggravated Level One, the most severe, entails substantial fines and a longer imprisonment term compared to Level Five, the least severe.

Conditional Measures

Beyond fines and imprisonment, the court may impose additional measures aimed at rehabilitation and deterrence. These include probation, alcohol education or treatment programs, and continuous alcohol monitoring.

License Suspension and Restoration:

Conviction also leads to license suspension by the DMV, with the duration varying per the offense severity. Restoration of driving privileges may require the completion of specific programs and adherence to imposed conditions.

For further insights and details, you can refer to the official text of the North Carolina General Statutes section § 20-179​ or consult with an experienced DWI attorney.

Scharff Law Can Help: Experienced DWI Defense Attorney

At Scharff Law, our knowledgeable DWI attorney understands the intricacies and nuances of North Carolina’s DWI laws. With years of experience defending clients against DWI charges, we are well-equipped to navigate the complex legal landscape to seek the best possible outcome.

From the moment you entrust us with your case, we commit to providing a thorough analysis of the circumstances surrounding your offense. We meticulously examine every piece of evidence and explore all viable defense strategies to challenge the prosecution’s case against you. Our attorneys stay abreast of the latest developments in DWI laws and defense strategies, ensuring a robust and up-to-date defense on your behalf.

Facing a DWI charge can be a daunting experience, filled with uncertainty and concern for the future. That’s why, at Scharff Law, we prioritize open communication and personalized attention for every client. We explain every step of the legal process, the potential implications of your case, and the strategies we intend to pursue to protect your rights and future.

We understand the significant impact a DWI conviction can have on your personal and professional life. Our aim is to minimize this impact by seeking to reduce the charges against you or, when possible, achieving a complete dismissal of the charges.

In North Carolina DWI cases, where the stakes are high and the laws are stringent, having a skilled and dedicated DWI defense attorney by your side can make a significant difference. Reach out to Scharff Law today, and let’s explore how we can support you through this challenging time as we work tirelessly toward a favorable resolution in your case.

Your future and freedom are paramount, and at Scharff Law, we are ready to fight fervently to safeguard them. Get in touch today and start valuing your future.