Although the specifics vary between states, it is important to note that it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle while impaired by any sort of intoxicant. “DWI” refers to driving while intoxicated and is generally used to describe a person driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated by alcohol, or drunk driving.

DUI” refers to driving under the influence, and typically describes operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs. Although the two are often used interchangeably, some states classify DWI and DUI separately and they do describe different circumstances and charges.

A DUI charge tends to be the lesser of the two charges, as it indicates a lesser degree of impairment. A DWI charge indicates a higher level of intoxication or impairment, and therefore is taken more seriously. Both DWI and DUI are considered to be criminal charges. Some states recognize other acronyms, such as:

  • Operating Under the Influence (OUI);
  • Operating a Vehicle Under the Influence (OVI);
  • Operating While Intoxicated (OWI);
  • Driving While Ability Impaired (DWAI);
  • Operating a Vehicle Under the Influence of an Intoxicant (OVUII); and
  • Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII).

What Are Some Examples of the Differences Between DWI and DUI?

As previously mentioned, the “I” in the DWI and DUI acronyms refers to something different. One refers to being under the influence of an intoxicant (DUI), while the other refers to actually being intoxicated (DWI). A DWI may also be referred to as drunk driving, as the person being charged decided to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated from alcohol. Generally, such persons are legally drunk.

Typically, to be considered legally drunk, the person operating the motor vehicle must have a blood alcohol content (“BAC”) level that has reached or surpassed 0.08%. However, if the driver has a BAC level under the limit, or if they are a minor driving with any amount of alcohol in their system, they may be charged with a DUI instead.

Any substance that impairs your motor skills or your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle could be included in a state’s laws regarding intoxicating substances. Some examples of such intoxicants could include but are not limited to:

  • Illicit or illegal contraband drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, etc.;
  • Cannabis;
  • Prescription medications such as pain medications, muscle relaxers, sleeping pills, etc.; and
  • Over the counter medicines, particularly those that are especially easy to overdose, including antihistamines.

In states that do not differentiate the two, there are really no differences between a DUI and a DWI. In states that do classify the two as separate crimes, a DWI is generally reserved for alcohol related offenses while a DUI could be for any intoxicant that is not alcohol.

How Do Police Determine Whether a Person is Intoxicated or Influenced by an Intoxicant?

First and foremost, a police officer must have probable cause before pulling someone over and accusing them of driving drunk or impaired. Probable cause refers to the reasonable belief that someone is committing or will commit a crime based on their actions. In terms of driving while intoxicated or influenced, this could include but is not limited to:

  • Speeding;
  • Swerving;
  • Running through a traffic light or stop sign; or
  • The officer pulled over the driver for something unrelated, then noticed drug or alcohol paraphernalia in the vehicle.

Once probable cause has been established, the officer may then ask the driver to step out of their vehicle so they may administer a sobriety test. These could include:

  • A field sobriety test, such as reciting the alphabet or some other activity designed to test agility and balance;
  • A chemical breath test, most commonly known as a breathalyzer test; and/or
  • A blood or urine test drawn from a sample, to be conducted by a medical professional.

Failure to consent to sobriety testing is not illegal, although it may later reflect poorly on the defendant. While the results of testing can be used against a person in court, testing may actually help their case. An example of this would be if their blood alcohol content testing revealed a lower level of intoxication. The defendant could then plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge, such as a DUI instead of a DWI.

Recently, police officers have been able to request a Drug Recognition Expert. The drug recognition expert can determine if a driver is actually impaired, and if so, what drugs may have led to their impairment.

Do I Need an Attorney for a DWI or DUI Charge?

As can be seen, state laws and definitions on DWIs and DUIs vary widely. However, regardless of the differences, most states have similar penalties for DUI and DWI charges. Penalties typically include criminal fines, jail or prison time, as well as suspension or revocation of a driver’s license.

Therefore, if you are facing either a DUI or DWI charge, you should immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable DUI/DWI attorney. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand your rights, as well as your state’s specific laws regarding the matter. Additionally, they can determine if any defenses are available to you based on the details of your case. Finally, an attorney can represent you in a court of law as needed.