DWI vs. DUI

by CherrellT on December 30, 2011

DWI and DUI are two legal acronyms which have entered the popular lexicon due to the increased attention given to offenses involving alcohol and the operation of vehicles. DWI typically stands for “driving while intoxicated”, while DUI is mostly used to describe the act of “driving under the influence.” The use of one acronym over the other is largely a jurisdictional issue. Some statutes make reference to one acronym over the other, while the compendium of laws in some states makes a distinction between the two. Some completely different acronyms may be used in certain jurisdictions, such as OVI (operating a vehicle while impaired). There’s also BWI (boating while impaired), which is used by the United States Coast Guard.

Distinctions between DWI and DUI

In states such as New York, which include both acronyms in their statutes, will typically refer to DUI as a lesser offense. The distinction is based upon the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) determined by means of a breathalyzer machine, or the more accurate -yet less frequently used- blood test. Any reading may result in a DUI, while a reading higher than the legal limit could lead to a DWI.

In jurisdictions where DUI is a lesser offense, defense attorneys may use the law to their defendants’ advantage and negotiate with prosecutors to lower the charges down from DWI. This does not mean that DUI should be used as a bargaining chip; it rather implies that potentially negative outcomes can be mitigated for the benefit of the defendant. In many cases going from a DWI to a DUI may not be practical, such as in McElhanon v. State, a case in which the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that DUI is a completely separate offense from DWI.

The Severity of DWI and DUI

States may not make distinctions between DWI and DUI, and only the federal government treats the lesser DUI as a misdemeanor. Most states aren’t hung up on semantics and treat both DUI and DWI as very serious felony crimes. Even in situations where reasonable suspicion is highly questionable, such as at a random roadblock that pushes the limits of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the BAC level is the single determining factor in whether a driver can be charged with drunk driving or not. Depending on the procedures of the law enforcement agency, a driver who does not pass a field sobriety test, but does not record a BAC over the legal limit may still be charged with DUI.

Most DWI and DUI arrests end up in felony charges being filed against the driver. Law enforcement personnel often tell the drivers they arrest not to worry; that they will only be detained for a short time and should expect to regain driving privileges within a few weeks. Such statements are less than truthful; DUI charges are grave matters that should be given careful consideration.

DWI and DUI charges are of great severity and negative consequence, they should both be dealt with a strong legal defense. Retaining an experienced attorney from the outset is the best strategy. Instead of looking at an alleged case of drinking and driving as just another acronym, a good attorney will examine the case from different angles. DUI and DWI cases tend to be complex and filled with ambiguities. A DWI offense can be dismissed, or reduced to a lesser charge, depending on the circumstances surrounding the arrest.

Author Robin Boyd has been working with a dui lawyer in philadelphia during her time as a teen counselor.

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