Differences Between DUI and OWI in Michigan

Empty bottle of alcohol on a table next to car keys and handcuffs symbolizing a possible OWIIn the United States, DUI (Driving Under the Influence) and DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) have historically been the acronyms used to describe drunk driving offenses. In recent years however, new acronyms have been created to describe this type of offense. These new acronyms have largely supplanted the legal usage of DUI & DWI in most states.

In Michigan, the current type of acronym used to describe drunk driving is now OWI (Operating While Intoxicated). While to the casual observer these terms are the same in their description of a drunk driving offense, there are significant ramifications to the change to OWI. In practice, this change affects more than just the legal description of an offense – it allows law enforcement to cast a wider net to be able to charge more offenses under the state’s drunk driving statues.

Acronym Changes

One of the largest issues prosecutors faced in the past with the acronyms DUI and DWI is that they include the word “driving”. The term driving when used in the scope of motor vehicle laws is generally interpreted as being in control of a vehicle that is in motion. This caveat was used by defense attorneys in the past to argue that a person wasn’t driving a motor vehicle if the vehicle wasn’t actually moving when the defendant was confronted by law enforcement. This defense strategy was frequently and successfully used to dismiss drunk driving charges in cases where the defendant was in a parked vehicle, stopped at an intersection or even sleeping in a vehicle.

With the change of the acronym to OWI, prosecutors across the country now have an increased legal standing to successfully convict drunk driving offenders. This has to do with the word “operating” in place of “driving”. The word operating has largely been interpreted to include vehicles that are either moving or stationary. In Michigan, this was officially changed in 1999 when the drunk driving acronyms OUIL and UBAL were bundled under the single acronym OWI.

This effectively gives prosecutors the ability to prosecute anyone who is operating or has the ability to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Those who are intoxicated and choose to sleep in their vehicles, or who are in a vehicle that is in park or not moving can now be and have been successfully prosecuted due to this change. Something to note is that in Michigan, this intoxication not only includes alcohol but also illegal and prescription drugs – if it can be proven that the use of these drugs has substantially impaired your ability to drive.

Presumptions and Legal Limits

In Michigan, there used to be presumptions which were carried over after the 1999 OWI change. The legal limit for blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.10, over which a person was presumed to be intoxicated. This also stated that a BAC between .07 to .10 was presumed to be impairment. A BAC below .07 meant that you were presumed to not be intoxicated or impaired and therefore not in violation of the law.

Presumptions were removed in 2003 when Michigan changed its drunk driving laws and lowered the legal limit to .08. This is a significant change because it means that without presumptions, a person can be charged with an OWI even if their BAC is below .07. The only protection for those charged with a OWI who are under the .07 is that a prosecutor must prove that a person’s ability to operate a motor vehicle was substantially diminished due to their alcohol consumption.

Penalties for DUI And OWI Charges

A chart showing the various degrees of drunk driving classifications, charges, and penalties in Michigan. This ranges from OWI punishable by up to 93 days in jail all the way up to OWI causing death punishable by up to 15 years in prison

Michigan has very strict penalties for those convicted of OWI. Those convicted can face long-term hardships and restrictions on their driving privileges, or the removal of their privileges altogether. There several different levels of penalties depending on whether or not the defendant has been previously convicted of OWI, and/or how many prior OWI convictions they have. The first conviction carries the lightest penalties, and subsequent convictions will result in more severe fines and penalties, including felony charges and prison sentences.

For a first offense, defendants are usually charged with misdemeanor OWI. This includes jail time of up to 93 days and fines of up to $500. Depending on the circumstances of the offense and the discretion of the judge, a defendant may be required to perform 360 hours of community service and participate in a court approved alcohol and drug education program. If death or serious bodily injury occurs as a result of the defendants OWI, then it can be charged as a felony with increased penalties and fines.

A second OWI offense is similar in punishment to a first offense as it is a misdemeanor with similar types of punishment. However, the penalties are significantly increased for a second offense, with the potential of up to one year in jail, fines of up to $1000, mandatory vehicle immobilization and a minimum of a one year license revocation.

After the offenders license is reinstated, there is a probationary period which requires the installation of an ignition interlock (breathalyzer) device, which is required to be used every time the vehicle is operated. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the offense, there is a possibility of community 30 to 90 days of required community service. As with the first offense, if the defendant’s actions resulted in serious bodily injury or death, then a second offense OWI will be charged as a felony with significantly increased penalties and jail time.

Third and subsequent OWI offenses are the most serious and are charged as felonies by default in Michigan. Those convicted face up to five years in prison, fines of up to $5000, drivers license revocation, forfeiture of their vehicle and mandatory community service of up to 180 hours. Drivers license reinstatement after a third offense is extraordinarily difficult, and isn’t even an option in most cases until at least five years after the last conviction. Even then, ignition interlock devices are required to be able to operate a vehicle during the probationary period.