Anatomy Of A North Carolina DWI Case: From Your Traffic Stop To Trial

A fun night out or a celebratory dinner in North Carolina can quickly turn into a legal nightmare that can last months or even years. If you have had a few drinks before driving and see a patrol car’s emergency lights begin to flash in your rearview mirror, fear and panic can quickly set in. Questions may begin racing through your mind:

  • What is going to happen to me and my passengers?
  • What should I say or do with the officer?
  • Is driving while impaired (DWI) a felony in North Carolina or is it some less-severe crime?

Knowing how your DWI case will proceed can help to calm your nerves and help you to make smart decisions during your case that can help you and your North Carolina DWI attorney to address your charges.

Step One: Investigation and Arrest

Nearly every North Carolina impaired driving investigation begins with the stop of your vehicle by a police officer. From the moment the officer sees your vehicle, he or she is looking for “clues,” or signs of intoxication. These signs can include:

  • Weaving or drifting from one lane of traffic to another
  • Speeding up or slowing down for no reason
  • Hitting or almost hitting other cars, the curb or stationary objects.

The officer can pull you over when he or she possesses reasonable suspicion that you are driving under the influence. Reasonable suspicion only requires the officer to have specific and articulable facts that he or she can point to that suggest you are driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs. Upon stopping your car and notifying dispatch about the stop and receiving preliminary information about your car and your history, the officer will approach you and begin speaking with you.

Everything that the officer does and says is designed to help him or her to detect additional clues of intoxication. The officer will notice if:

  • You have red and/or watery eyes
  • There is an odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from your breath.

The officer will ask you for your driver’s license, insurance information and proof of registration and will note whether you fumble for these documents. He or she will ask you whether you have consumed any alcohol and, if so, how much. While you must produce your license, insurance and registration upon demand, you do not have to answer any questions put to you by the officer. You should know that any answers you provide can be used against you later.

If the officer sees any additional clues of intoxication, you will be asked to submit to Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs). These are called “divided attention” tests. This is because they force you to divide your attention between two or more tasks being performed simultaneously.

If you are unable to perform these tests satisfactorily, it can indicate impairment by drugs or alcohol. Three tests typically are administered:

  • The Walk-and-Turn – Requires the driver to walk a real or imaginary straight line with heel-to-toe steps while counting aloud.
  •  The One-Leg-Stand – Requires the driver to stand on one leg with his or her toes pointed and count aloud while looking at his or her feet.
  •  The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) – Requires drivers to follow a stimulus (like a pen or a finger) with their eyes while keeping the head still.

The SFSTs are voluntary tests. So, you do not have to submit to performing them if you do not want to do so. If the officer has probable cause to believe you are guilty of driving under the influence, you will be placed under arrest and transported to the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office or another law enforcement center for further testing.

The officer will (most likely) ask you to submit to a breath test on an Intox EC/IR II or similar device. If you refuse to do so, your license can be suspended. (You should know that police officers must follow specific procedures when doing this testing, including giving you the opportunity to call for a witness.)

If you refuse to give a breath test, the officer will likely obtain a search warrant in order to obtain a blood sample for testing. Once all testing is complete, you will be booked into jail until your court appearance. At the earliest possible moment, you should request the opportunity to contact an attorney and have him or her assist you. You generally should not talk to officers until you have an attorney present with you.

Step Two: Charges Filed Against You and Preliminary Hearings

Shortly after your arrest, you will be informed by a judge of the charges against you. This may include a charge of impaired driving along with any other offenses the officer has reason to believe you committed.

You will be informed of your rights as a defendant. If you cannot afford an attorney, one may be appointed to you at this time.

Finally, the court may address your bond and can lower your bond amount. The court may even release you on your own recognizance if you are unable to make bond if you:

  • Have a limited criminal history or no criminal history
  • The severity of your DWI offense is relatively slight
  • The court is convinced you are not a person who will flee before trial.

Step Three: Discovery

Once your criminal case begins, your attorney and the prosecution will engage in discovery. This is the formal exchange of evidence and information. Discovery gives your attorney an opportunity to examine and analyze the evidence the prosecution intends to use to prove your guilt.

Additionally, the prosecution must disclose any evidence it has in its possession that would tend to exonerate you or that is favorable to you. During the discovery process, you and your attorney will discuss your trial strategy and how you intend to counter the prosecution’s evidence. In some cases, discovery may lead your attorney to file a motion to have evidence suppressed or to have your charge dismissed.

Step Four: Department of Motor Vehicles Hearing

Failing or refusing any breath test will result in an automatic suspension of your driver’s license for at least 30 days. You may also receive a notice from the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) subsequent to your DWI arrest, informing you that your license privileges will be suspended for a period of time.

To hold onto your driving privileges, you must request a hearing before the DMV within a specific period of time. At this hearing, you would have an opportunity to present evidence showing your driving privileges should not be suspended. For instance, some technical or legal defect may have existed in the way the officer stopped, arrested and/or tested you.

Your attorney will know how to request this important hearing and can help you to gather the evidence and witnesses that will help you to prevail. Even if your driving privileges are suspended after a DMV hearing, your attorney may be able to help you apply for a restricted license that would allow you to drive under certain circumstances.

Step Five: Plea Negotiations and Agreements

Either you or the prosecution may choose to initiate plea proceedings. Neither you nor the prosecution must reach a plea agreement. However, a plea agreement will resolve your case without the need for a trial.

You will typically be asked to plead guilty to one or more of the offenses with which you have been charged in return for more favorable sentencing recommendations.

Ultimately, it is up to you whether to accept a plea agreement. Your attorney can advise you on whether taking a proposed agreement is in your best interest and will aggressively fight to obtain the best possible plea agreement terms for you.

Step Six: Trial

If your case has not been resolved through a plea agreement, your case will be set for trial. The prosecution will present its witnesses and evidence, and you and your attorney will have an opportunity to challenge this evidence and attempt to create reasonable doubt. Your attorney can expose and highlight areas where the officer involved in your case did not follow proper protocol and can challenge the qualifications and conclusions of any expert witness relied upon by the prosecution to explain your blood alcohol level.

Step Seven: Managing the Consequences of Your Conviction

You may be sentenced the day you are convicted, or you may be sentenced at a later time if your offense is a felony or if the court finds there are other reasons to warrant a delay (such as to give victims a chance to be present). In North Carolina, the number of previous DWI convictions you have had in the previous 10 years will dictate whether your offense is treated as a misdemeanor or as a felony.

North Carolina recognizes certain additional “aggravating factors” that can increase the severity of the sentence you receive. These aggravating factors include:

  • Whether your DWI resulted in injury or death
  • Whether one or more children under the age of 18 were present in the vehicle with you while you were driving
  • Whether you were impaired by illegal drugs and/or alcohol or whether you were under the influence of a lawful substance.

The possible punishments include:

  • Fines
  • Mandatory periods of incarceration
  • Mandatory attendance at alcohol education classes
  • Required installation of an ignition interlock device for a period of time.

At this sentencing stage, your attorney can present evidence of mitigating factors and argue that the court should impose as lenient of a sentence as possible.

Get Help from a Cleveland County DWI Attorney

To best protect your legal rights after being arrested for drunk driving in North Carolina, it is essential that you contact an experienced and aggressive lawyer. The Cleveland County DWI defense attorneys at Teddy, Meekins & Talbert, P.L.L.C., stand ready to guide you through your DWI case from start to finish, ensuring that your rights are protected along the way.

Our goal is to make sure that you benefit from our years of experience with helping DWI clients in Shelby, Gastonia, Lincolnton, Rutherfordton and surrounding communities in Cleveland, Gaston, Lincoln and Rutherford counties.

To get started, contact us today.

A native North Carolinian and a fourth-generation lawyer, Ralph W. Meekins literally had the desire to help those who are not able to help themselves as well as to be a practical life adviser to people in his blood.

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