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Does a DUI/DWI count as a criminal offense?

Drunk driving is a major problem worldwide. In the United States, drunk driving was to blame for 29 percent of lives lost in road fatalities in 2015. According to the National Highway Traffic Survey Administration (NHTSA), the irresponsible practice results in 10,000 lives lost every year and costs the American government $44 billion annually.

However, stricter laws, harsher penalties and more vigilant enforcement have had a positive effect on drunken driving related statistics. According to the NHTSA, drunk-driving fatalities are down 57 percent since 1982.

The offense of driving drunk is called Driving Under the Influence (DUI) but in some cases, it is also referred to as Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). In some states, the two terms can be used interchangeably whereas in some states the term DUI is only used for alcohol impaired driving and DWI is used in cases where the driver is impaired because of using prescription drugs or illegal narcotics.

A first time DUI or DWI offense is not considered a criminal offense in most states. Some states only use administrative penalties for a first time DUI offense or in cases where there has been no physical harm to anyone as a result of driving while inebriated.

What is a criminal offense?

The United States legal system divides violations of the law into two categories; criminal offenses and civil offenses. A criminal offense is a violation of the law which is distinct from a civil offense and a much more serious charge with far heavier penalties. Criminal offenses are violations against the state and the moral standards of society in general. For example, even though if a person murders another person, directly it may only seem like a crime by one person against another, but if the law considers murder a criminal offense that means that neither the state nor society at large will tolerate the act of murder. Criminal offenses are punishable by jail time, and civil offenses are only punishable by monetary damages and the orders to do or not do something. Traffic violations don’t count as criminal offenses.

Whether DUI or Driving While Intoxicated DWI are considered criminal offenses or traffic violations depends on a variety of factors, including the state in which the driver was charged with the violation and the previous number of times the driver had been charged with DUI or DWI. Currently, only the State of Maine classifies a first time DUI as a criminal offense. In Maine, a first time DUI is a Class D felony, meaning that the offense is punishable by jail time, heavy fines, and strict probation conditions. Moreover, the offense cannot be expunged from the offenders’ criminal record.

The rest of the United States still classifies a first DUI/DWI as a misdemeanor. The only conditions that have to be met are that nobody was physically harmed as a result of the offender and the offender did not try to escape the police, resist arrest or refuse a breathalyzer test. The punishments he or she will receive will be administrative in nature.

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