Drunk Driving (DUI, DWI, and OWI) Offenses in the District of Columbia

The DC Code contains three drunk driving offenses – DUI, DWI and OWI.  DUI and DWI both carry up to 180 days and $1,000 fine for a first offense (although a sentence anywhere near those maximums would be exceedingly unusual for a first offense).  OWI is punishable by up to a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail.  Although DUI and DWI are similar in many respects, there are important differences in what the government must prove for each offense, which we discuss below.

For many people, a DUI/DWI charge will be their first and only experience with the criminal justice system.  On this page we discuss some of the particulars of DUI/DWI law as they exist in the District of Columbia.

How are drunk driving offenses prosecuted in D.C.? 

As with most “local” crimes, drunk driving cases are heard in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia.   However, one unusual feature is that these cases are prosecuted by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), which is an agency of the D.C. government.  Most other criminal offenses in the District are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (USAO-DC), which is an agency of the federal government.

What is the difference between a DWI, DUI, and OWI in D.C.?   

DWI, DUI, and OWI are all names for drunk driving offenses in D.C.  However, they are not synonymous.  In some States, DWI and DUI may refer to different crimes.  In Washington, D.C., DWI and DUI refer to the same crime, but two different means of proving it.  OWI, meanwhile, is an entirely different crime from DWI/DUI.  We will go over each term in more detail.

Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) in D.C.

To get a conviction for DWI in D.C., the prosecution needs to prove that the defendant: 1) operated or was in physical control of a vehicle in the district; and 2) was “intoxicated.”

So what does it mean for someone to be “intoxicated”?  Contrary to how people normally use the word, here “intoxicated” is defined as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) above a certain numerical threshold.  If the prosecution proves that the defendant’s BAC was above the statutory threshold at the time he operated the vehicle, then the defendant is legally “intoxicated” and guilty of DWI. It does not matter if the defendant was driving normally, or was fully functional.  This is the reason why DWI is sometimes called a “per se” offense.

Driving Under the Influence (DUI) in D.C.

To prove DUI in D.C., the prosecution needs to show that the defendant: (1) operated or was in physical control of a vehicle in the district; and (2) was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Astute readers will notice that the key difference between DWI and DUI is the second element: being “intoxicated” versus being “under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”

Unlike DWI, DUI does not require the prosecutor to prove that the defendant had a particular BAC level. Instead, the prosecutor usually relies on policer officers’ testimony about the defendant’s driving behavior, demeanor, smell, appearance, and performance on Field Sobriety Tests in order to prove this element.  For example, the officer may testify that the defendant was swerving in traffic, smelled of alcohol, became confused when interacting with the officer, had glassy eyes, and failed to pass field sobriety tests.  The government will argue that this testimony constitutes proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was “under the influence.”

Because DUI is more difficult to prove, frequently prosecutors will resort to DUI only when there is a problem with proving DWI—such as, for example, when there is no test of the defendant’s BAC at the time of arrest.

Operating While Impaired (OWI) in D.C.

The crime of Operating While Impaired (OWI) requires proof that the defendant: (1) operated or was in physical control of a vehicle in the district; (2) while his or her ability to operate or be in physical control of a vehicle is “impaired” by the consumption of alcohol or any drug or any combination thereof.

Compared to DWI or DUI, OWI is relatively easy to prove.  This is because “impaired” in this context simply means “noticeable.”  So long as the police officer can say that your ability to operate the vehicle was “noticeably” affected by alcohol consumption (for example, because your vehicle was swerving), then that is sufficient to prove an OWI charge.

How do I defend against a drunk driving charge in D.C.? 

While you should always rely on your attorney to determine the best defense against a criminal charge, we understand that often times people want to understand what possible defenses are out there.  With that said, here we will discuss some common defense scenarios.

In drunk driving cases, it is frequently not an issue whether someone was “operating” a vehicle.  The law defines “operating” a vehicle broadly, and the general rule of thumb is that if you were in the driver’s seat at the time you were arrested, and the engine was running, then you were “operating” the vehicle.  It should come as no surprise that frequently, a defense to a DWI/DUI charge comes down to whether the defendant was actually “intoxicated,” (for DWI) “under the influence” (for DUI), or “impaired” (for OWI).

An experienced attorney will need to investigate multiple angles to determine the best defense applicable in your case.  If the prosecutor is trying to prove DWI, then one thing that should be looked at is potentially challenging the test results showing that you had a BAC of higher than the statutory threshold. Equipment failure, operator mistake, lack of proper training, maintenance issues, etc. can all lead to inaccurate test results, which can then be challenged in court.  In addition, testimony about a person’s BAC level is considered expert testimony, and an inexperienced prosecutor may fail to follow all of the rules for properly introducing expert testimony. If this happens, your attorney can immediately challenge the expert testimony during the trial, and possibly get the judge to exclude testimony about your BAC.  Without evidence of your BAC, the prosecutor cannot prove a DWI charge.

If the prosecutor is trying to prove DUI, then one potential defense may be a good cross-examination of the police officer. For example, if the policer officer failed to scrupulously follow the instructions for administering Field Sobriety Tests, that calls into question the reliability of the tests.  Or if the officer has at any point changed his version of events from his testimony at previous hearings, or from what he wrote down in his report, that can be challenged as well. It may also be necessary to impeach the police officer’s credibility if the officer has ever been subject to disciplinary sanctions.  These are just a few examples of how a defense attorney can approach a DUI case.

Miscellaneous drunk driving laws in D.C.

D.C. has a miscellaneous collection of drunk-driving related laws beyond DWI and DUI.  We will briefly go over each.

  • Enhanced penalties for commercial vehicle drivers. If the vehicle is a “commercial vehicle,” such as a bus, taxicab, delivery truck, etc., then the D.C. Code imposes an additional penalty of 5 days in jail, on top of whatever the defendant would have received for a normal drunk driving conviction.
  • Enhanced penalties for having minors in the vehicle. If there are minors in the vehicle at the time of the drunk driving offense, the District requires an additional minimum fine of $500 per minor, and between 5-10 additional days of jail for each minor present.
  • Operating a horse-drawn vehicle while under the influence. The D.C. Code also has a special section that makes it unlawful to operate a “horse-drawn vehicle” while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  The penalties for violating this section are lighter than normal drunk driving convictions, although it may include up to 90 days in jail.

Horse Drawn Vehicle

(Here is a possible case of operating a horse drawn vehicle while under the influence)

Dismissals and plea bargains in drunk driving cases in D.C.

There are multiple ways that a drunk driving case can be resolved. Although there is nothing we like more than a good trial, we also know from experience that from our clients’ perspective, the best outcome is not always a trial, even if it is one that we have a good chance of winning.

A pretrial dismissal is, of course, the best possible outcome.  Pretrial dismissals are rare, and whether it is available in your case depends on many things, like the facts of the case, the quality of the police work, etc.  One constant is the need for a smart, hard-working, and aggressive defense lawyer to take advantage of any mistakes made by the prosecution. For example, if the police violated your rights under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution during the initial traffic stop or subsequent investigation, the judge may exclude all or part of the government’s evidence, leaving it with no case.  If the government does not provide you with evidence you have a right to see pretrial, the court may dismiss the charge as a sanction.  In a recent case, we obtained a dismissal of a DUI case where the government violated our client’s right to a speedy trial.

If after a thorough investigation it appears that the government has a strong case, it may be in a defendant’s best interest to explore a plea bargain.  In some cases, the government can be persuaded to enter into a “deferred sentencing agreement” (DSA) in DUI/DWI cases.  Under a DSA, the defendant enters a guilty plea but the plea is later withdrawn for dismissal after the defendant performs community service and meets certain other requirements.

If dismissal is not possible, and there is no reasonable plea offer from the prosecution, then trial is the only avenue. We have the experience and expertise to win DUI/DWI cases at trial, and have obtained multiple “Not Guilty” jury verdicts in DUI/DWI cases.  If you have been charged with a DUI or DWI crime in D.C., please don’t hesitate to call us today, and we will offer a free phone consultation.