DUI’s and DWI’s refer to the language used by different authorities for drunk and drugged driving offenses; however, there are many other terms to describe impaired driving. The term DUI is often used to describe drunk driving laws in general, regardless of the different acronyms, since it is the most common amongst state laws. But is there really a difference between the two?

In some states, DUI and DWI can be used interchangeably, while in others, DUI and DWI offenses are explained and penalized differently. In most cases, individual states have different laws when it comes to distinguishing between DUI’s and DWI’s. For example, in Texas, a DUI refers to when someone is driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) above zero but below the legal limit of .08%, while a DWI is driving with a BAC above the legal limit of .08%. 


DUI is an acronym for “Driving Under the Influence.” This charge is typically connected with drunk driving, but it can also pertain to those who are under the influence of drugs or certain medications. In some states, a per se offense is provided, meaning that a person commits the crime of a DUI when driving a vehicle on the road or highway with a BAC of .08%, regardless of whether they are visibly impaired.

In most states, a defendant must actually be operating a vehicle to be convicted of a DUI, but this is continually changing. An increasing number of states are starting to use phrases like “operating a vehicle” or “being in physical control of the vehicle” in order to broaden the circumstances in which a person can be convicted of a DUI, such as sitting in the driver's seat with the keys in the ignition even when the vehicle is not in motion.


What defines a DWI is typically state-specific. In some states, DWI stands for “driving while intoxicated” and is essentially equivalent to a DUI. However, in other states, DWI means “driving while impaired.” Within these states, any impairment is grounds for criminal charges. For example, driving while falling asleep and driving while physically incapable of safely controlling a vehicle would all lead to a criminal charge.  In reality, the elements of a DWI are the same as a DUI without drugs or alcohol being involved. 

Regardless of the acronym used, a DUI or DWI means the arresting officer saw reason to believe a driver was too impaired to continue driving. 

Impaired Driving Acronyms

The acronyms DUI and DWI are the most frequently used expressions for drunk driving charges in the United States, but they are certainly not the only ones. Each expression has a specific meaning within the penal code of each state, so throwing around particular terminology does not help when discussing particular jurisdictions. In fact, many states have more than one type of impaired driving charges, each with its own acronym. 

In more than half of the states, the term DUI is used to identify the standard charge for driving under the influence, while 10 states use the term DWI (driving while intoxicated or driving while impaired). However, other terms are also used for standard impaired driving—typically for a BAC of .08% or higher— and including the following:

  • OUI - Operating under the influence
  • DWAI - Driving while ability impaired
  • OVUII - Operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant
  • OWI - Operating while intoxicated
  • OVI - Operating a vehicle under the influence
  • DUII  - Driving under the influence of intoxicants

Do Offense Names Matter?

Despite all the different names, state DUI laws are relatively the same in how they define drunk and drugged driving. So, for the most part, the names do not necessarily matter all that much.

In each state, based on a BAC or actual intoxication, any person can be convicted of a DUI. A DUI that is based on BAC is usually referred to as a “per se DUI.” All states, except for Utah (where the maximum BAC level is more strict), all states define per se DUI’s as operating a vehicle with a BAC of .08% or more. Some states even have a per se drug-DUI law that makes it illegal to operate a vehicle with a certain concentration of drugs in a person’s system.

With that being said, all states have impairment DUI laws. But the laws in each state define the forbidden level of impairment differently. For example, in Nebraska, the DUI laws define under the influence as having a person's ability to safely operate a vehicle impaired to any “substantial degree.” On the other hand, California DUI laws define under the influence if “substantially” affected by drugs or alcohol.

When Offenses Names Do Make a Difference

Many states use several different names to explain different classes of impaired driving offenses. For example, the standard drunk or drugged driving offense in New York is called “driving while intoxicated” or “DWI.” However, New York also has a less significant offense called “driving while ability impaired” or “DWAI.”

Normally, when a state has two different types of impaired driving offenses, the difference between the two is based on the driver’s level of impairment. In states with numerous impaired driving classifications, a defendant charged with driving under the influence or DUI can occasionally plea bargain for the lesser impaired driving offense.

DUI or DWI Consequences

Like any other criminal charge, a person charged with DUI or DWI is presumed innocent until proven guilty. If guilt is indicated, through the defendant’s own plea or after a jury trial, the punishment depends on the state law that the impaired driving charge occurred in.

Most DUIs tend to carry hefty punishments that usually include license suspension, expensive fines, and possible jail time. It is also becoming customary for state DUI laws to require convicted vehicle operators to use ignition interlock devices (IIDs) for a period of time after their license is reinstated. 

Jail Time

In many states, a first-offense DUI or DWI is classified as a misdemeanor and the punishment is no longer than six months to a year in jail. However, in a couple of states, the maximum time a person can spend in jail for a first DUI is even shorter. For example, the maximum jail time for a first DWI offense in New Jersey is only 30 days. And, even though it is not common, there are some states, like Pennsylvania, in which a first DUI doesn’t carry any possible jail time.

With second and succeeding DUI’s and DWI’s, the maximum possible jail time is usually greater. But it is even more common for the mandatory minimum jail sentence for a second offense to be longer than that of the first offense.

Many circumstances affect the amount of jail time a person can serve for a DUI or DWI conviction. For example, some states mandate more serious punishments if a person’s BAC at the time they are arrested is way over the legal limit of .08%. Also, if a person’s DUI or DWI has been categorized as a felony—due to the driver killing or injuring another person or because the driver has numerous prior DUI/DWI convictions— it is not out of the ordinary for the driver to receive a severe several year sentence. However, it is important to remember that the specifics depend on the state that the DUI or DWI occurred in, the facts of the case, and the circumspection of the judge at trial.


The most common result of a DUI or DWI conviction is fines. These fines often vary by state. But, normally, the same kind of factors that increase jail time also increase the amount the driver can expect to pay in fines.

In the majority of states, a typical first DUI conviction is between $500 to $2,000 in fines. The fines for succeeding offenses and DUI’s or DWI’s that involved aggravated factors can climb way into the thousands. Although it varies from state to state, the fines someone convicted of a DUI or DWI can expect to pay are roughly the same.

Driver’s License Issues

There is a good chance that a DUI or DWI offender will have his or her license suspended for a long period of time—either mandated by the court or state motor vehicles department. As with other punishments, the suspension periods are usually connected to how many convictions a person previously has. For example, in Alabama, the suspension period is 90 days for a first-time DUI offense, a 1-year revocation for a second-time offense, and a 3-year revocation for a third-time offense.

If a driver unlawfully refuses to take a breath, urine, or blood test, it can also result in a license suspension. Usually, the suspension imposed for an unlawful refusal is exceptionally longer than what the driver would have otherwise faced.

It is also possible for a driver to obtain a “hardship license” which allows him or her to drive to and from places like school or work during their DUI suspension.

In some states, a further step is taken to make sure that a person (typically a repeat offender) does not get back on the road while they are under the influence. States can either confiscate or cancel a person’s car registration, temporarily or permanently, or require an ignition interlock device (IID) to be attached to the driver’s car. An IID is simply a breathalyzer that is wired to a car’s ignition and prevents a motorist from driving when breath alcohol is detected.

Alternate Forms of Punishment

In numerous states, alternative sentencing options are accessible to particular offenders such as prevention programs, substance abuse education, treatment for substance abuse, and community service. Oftentimes judges in these states will recommend these steps instead of jail time or paying fines, most likely for first-time offenders. Also, a judge might combine these alternative sentencing options along with other penalties.

Young Offenders

If a minor is convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs he or she may face relatively different penalties than convicted adults. In many states, there is a zero-tolerance law that does not allow drivers who are younger than 21 years old to drive with even the smallest amount of alcohol in their system. These zero-tolerance offenses usually do not carry jail time but will end in license suspension and fines.

Other Consequences

In addition to legal punishments, a driver’s insurance company will sometimes cancel an insurance policy or increase the driver’s rates drastically because of the DUI or DWI conviction. And it is important to note that a DUI or DWI conviction stays on a person’s driving record for numerous years.

Also, specific jobs may be unavailable to those who have been convicted of a DUI or DWI, such as operating a school bus, delivery van, or any other vehicle as part of their employment.

In the end, the driver could face a separate civil lawsuit if there are accident victims that sue for bodily injuries or property damages. 

No matter how your state refers to impaired driving, and whether it has different types of charges for numerous offenses within that category, convictions for these types of crimes can have an extreme effect on your life. 

A DUI conviction can result in jail time, license suspension, and fines. However, oftentimes, some of these penalties can be reduced or avoided entirely. For these reasons, it is best to consult an expert DUI attorney to help determine your options.

Why Choose The Cochran Firm

The attorneys at The Cochran Firm are among the nation’s most successful and tenacious attorneys. When navigating through the DUI process, you deserve to have an experienced attorney by your side. The Cochran Firm attorneys know how to fight for you.

If you want to avoid the stress that comes along with a DUI, you need a qualified attorney. You need a Cochran Firm attorney. Our attorneys work closely with each of our clients using pooled resources and their access to legal expertise to ensure the most effective legal representation available is being provided.

If you or a loved one have been accused of driving under the influence, please contact our experienced attorneys with offices nationwide today for your free, no-obligation initial consultation.