Is a First-Time DWI Always a Misdemeanor?


DWI stands for “driving while intoxicated,” and it is a criminal offense in all fifty states of the US. The term is often used interchangeably with a DUI, which is an acronym for “driving under the influence.” However, there is a slight difference between the two. A DUI is usually restricted to driving under the influence of alcohol, while a DWI includes intoxication from the use of recreational and prescription drugs.

Typically, a first-time DWI is classified as a misdemeanor. Nevertheless, there are circumstances under which a DWI can be labeled a felony, even if it is a first-time conviction. Here is all you need to know about misdemeanors, DWIs, and when a first-time offense can result in a felony conviction.

Misdemeanor vs. Felony

In law, criminal offenses are categorized into two main classes: misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are typically minor crimes that do not cause severe harm or injury to people and property. Additionally, there are usually no aggravating circumstances during the commission of a misdemeanor. 

A felony, on the other hand, refers to a grievous crime that results in severe outcomes. Some examples include murder and rape. With a felony, the accused typically displays a determined willingness to commit a crime, and this can often be inferred from the circumstances of the case.

The law differentiates between these two types of crimes in the kind of punishment meted out for each category. On most occasions, the law looks benignly on those convicted of misdemeanors. For instance, the maximum jail sentence that can accompany a misdemeanor conviction is a one-year imprisonment. Fines are usually limited to $1,000. You will also not lose any privileges, such as voting or working as a law enforcement officer because of a misdemeanor conviction.

Felonies, on the other hand, are treated harshly by the law. Fines tend to be much higher, and prison sentences can last for the duration of one’s life. The death penalty may even apply in some circumstances. A felony conviction can also result in lost privileges, such as losing your right to vote or hold public office.

When Can You Be Charged with DWI?

On most occasions, prosecutors will charge you with DWI if you are unable to pass a blood alcohol test. If you have a blood alcohol count of more than 0.08 percent, you will be arrested and charged with a DWI offense. 

Sometimes, the arresting officer may also perform other tests to determine your level of inebriation. These include the walk-and-turn test, the horizontal gaze nystagmus, and the one-leg stand test. If you have coordination problems, they will emerge during these tests. The officer will then proceed to arrest you, and you will later appear in court to answer to DWI charges.

DWI as a Misdemeanor

Although DWIs are a severe offense that can cause loss of life and property, your first DWI conviction will likely be treated as a misdemeanor. This is not to say that you will get off scot-free, however. Some consequences that will result from a conviction or guilty plea include the following:


You may have to serve time for a DWI conviction. Jail terms for this offense tend to be short, though. Some judges may put you on probation instead of incarceration. You may also need to perform community service tasks for a set period to atone for your mistakes.


You may also be required to pay a fine after a DWI conviction. On most occasions, the fine amount will not exceed $1,000.

License Suspension

A DWI conviction will likely result in the suspension of your driver’s or professional license for a while. Some DWI convictions could also result in suspension from school.

Alcohol Education and Treatment

Sometimes, the court may order those charged with DWI to undergo an evaluation to determine the degree of their alcohol or other drug problem. You may also have to attend an alcohol education program for a specific period. Some judges may order that you undergo a mandatory accredited alcohol treatment program if you are too dependent on the drug.

Losing Custody or Visitation Rights

Some DWI convictions can result in the loss of custody or visitation rights. This is especially true if there was a child in the car at the time of your arrest. 

Higher Insurance Premiums

A DUI conviction will also lead to higher insurance premiums. Most companies will deem you a risky driver, which means that they might have to spend a lot on you. This could cost you a few extra hundred dollars on your monthly insurance payments.

Monitoring Devices

Sometimes, the court may also order that you get a monitoring device for your car. This can be an ignition interlock device or a SCRAM ankle bracelet. Of course, the costs of installation and monitoring will be on you, and they can add up to a tidy sum.

When Can a First-Time DWI Be a Felony?

Some circumstances that can cause your first time DWI offense to be upgraded to a felony include the following:

Excessive BAC Levels

The prosecutor may prefer a DWI felony charge against you if your blood alcohol count is exceptionally high. For most states, a BAC level of over 0.16 percent shows excessive recklessness, so you may get a felony conviction. In such a case, you should turn to a DWI lawyer for help. 

Causing Serious Bodily Injury

If you cause a severe accident due to driving while intoxicated, you may also be charged with causing assault with a deadly weapon. This is a felony offense. Should someone die in such a case, the charges may be enhanced to vehicular manslaughter or homicide. These are both felonies, and it doesn’t matter whether it was your first time driving under the influence.

Child Endangerment

Another factor that can cause your first DWI offense to be upgraded to a felony is if there was a minor in the car. This is especially likely if the child in question is under 15 years of age. 

Driving with a Revoked License

A simple DWI charge can quickly turn into a felony conviction if you don’t have a valid license to be on the road. This applies to a revoked or suspended license.


If you have been arrested for a first-time DWI, there is a good chance that it will be treated as a misdemeanor. However, if there are aggravating circumstances, such as high BAC levels or child endangerment, you may face felony charges. In such a case, don’t hesitate to contact a lawyer. Their experience in legal matters will be of tremendous help to your case.

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