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What is an OWI?

What is an OWI? We break down what OWI stands for and the key things you should know about OWIs in this guide.

evident Editorial Team
November 28, 2023
wine glass, drunk driving

If you've ever heard the term "OWI," you might have wondered, "What is an OWI? And what's the difference between OWI and DUI?"

While the acronym might sound similar to the more commonly known DUI, there are subtle differences, and the terminology can vary depending on what state you're in. 

Understanding the intricacies of an OWI charge is crucial. Whether you're concerned about a recent traffic stop or just looking to educate yourself on drunk driving laws, this article gives an in-depth look at everything related to OWI.

Key Takeaways

What does OWI mean?

First, a threshold question: what does OWI stand for? OWI stands for "Operating While Intoxicated" or "Operating While Impaired."

Note that "Operating" can encompass a broader range of actions than the term "driving" and doesn't necessarily mean you were driving or moving the vehicle. Simply being in control of a vehicle, like being in the driver's seat with the keys in the ignition, even if the car isn't moving, can qualify as operating.

Meanwhile, "Intoxication" refers to a state where an individual's normal faculties are impaired due to the consumption of alcohol or drugs. It doesn't just mean being "drunk." Even prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications that affect your ability to operate a vehicle safely can lead to intoxication.

OWI vs DUI: What is the Difference?

The acronyms often get used interchangeably, leading to confusion about the difference between DUI and OWI. Are they the same? Is one more serious than the other?

It's worth noting that, overall, the terms can indeed be used interchangeably. Different states use different terms to describe what constitutes a drunk driving offense, but at the end of the day, DUIs and OWIs are broadly similar and describe someone driving or operating a vehicle while impaired.

That said, there are slight differences, and it's worth breaking down each term more closely.

The Basic Differences

At a threshold level, what do OWI and DUI stand for?

  • OWI: This stands for "Operating While Intoxicated." As discussed earlier, the term "operating" is broader and can include situations where you're in control of a vehicle without actually driving it.
  • DUI: Short for "Driving Under the Influence," this term specifically refers to the act of driving a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs.

Thus, the acronyms are different and can describe different things. Practically speaking, though, similar behavior is covered by both terms and they are often used interchangeably.

Jurisdictional Variations

Part of the confusion regarding the difference between DUI and OWI stems from the fact that different states use different terms.

Indeed, we have broken down the acronyms for OWI and DUI, but other variations include:

  • DWI -- Driving While Intoxicated
  • DWAI -- Driving While Ability Impaired
  • OVI -- Operating a Vehicle while Intoxicated

DUI is still the most commonly used term across states for drunk driving offenses. Indeed, more than half of states use DUI.

OWI, meanwhile, is used in a minority of states, including Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

OVI is the term for a DUI in Ohio, but generally still means driving under the influence.

Practical Implications

Regardless of the term used, both charges carry serious consequences, from license suspension to potential jail time. It's essential to know your state's specific definitions and penalties.

Understanding the distinction and implications of OWI and DUI is crucial. They aren't just terms but represent significant legal implications that can profoundly affect one's life.

Consequences of an OWI Charge

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Being charged with an OWI is not a trivial matter. The repercussions extend far beyond a simple traffic ticket and can profoundly impact various aspects of one's life. Whether you're a first-time offender or have faced similar charges in the past, it's essential to recognize the gravity of an OWI.

Let's examine some of the potential consequences:

  1. License Suspension:

One of the immediate outcomes of an OWI charge is often the suspension of your driving privileges. Depending on the state and the specifics of the charge, this suspension can range from a few months to several years. A restricted driver's license may be available depending on the circumstances.

  1. Jail Time:

While first-time offenders might escape with minimal or no jail time, repeat offenses or aggravating factors (like causing an accident or having minors in the vehicle) can lead to significant time behind bars.

  1. Financial Penalties:

From hefty fines to increased insurance premiums, the financial toll of an OWI charge can be daunting. Moreover, there might be costs associated with court-mandated programs or installing an ignition interlock device in your vehicle.

  1. Ignition Interlock Device: 

Some states require individuals charged with OWI to install this device in their cars. It works like a breathalyzer, preventing the vehicle from starting unless the driver is sober.

  1. Employment Implications:

Many employers take a dim view of OWI charges, especially if driving is an essential part of your job. It could lead to job loss or hinder future employment opportunities.

Other consequences of an OWI or DUI conviction may include court-ordered community service, which could be assigned in place of jail time, depending on the state's laws and the judge's discretion.

Is an OWI a felony?

An OWI can either be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances. Different states have different rules for when a drunk driving offense escalates from a misdemeanor or traffic violation to a felony.

For instance, in Wisconsin, an OWI is typically classified as a traffic violation or a misdemeanor for a first offense. But a person who commits their fourth OWI offense within five years or their fifth OWI offense within any timeframe may face felony charges. Additionally, an OWI that involves a crash causing serious bodily harm can also escalate the charge into a felony.

In some states, a higher blood alcohol content can also elevate DUI charges into felony territory if the BAC is a certain level above the legal limit.

Consequences of an Aggravated OWI

An aggravated OWI or DUI is a serious criminal offense, and the consequences are more severe than for a regular DUI offense.

Aggravated DUI penalties generally involve substantially larger penalties, lengthier jail time, and other meaningful consequences like longer license suspensions.

Testing and Arrest Procedure

If you're pulled over and a police officer suspects you of operating while intoxicated, it's crucial to understand the testing and arrest procedures. Let's take a step-by-step look:

  1. Initial Stop:

Usually, an officer will have a reason for pulling you over. It could be a minor traffic violation or more noticeable signs of intoxicated driving, such as swerving or erratic speed.

  1. Observation and Questioning:

The officer will observe signs of intoxication - bloodshot eyes, the smell of alcohol, slurred speech, etc. You may be asked if you've consumed any alcohol or drugs.

  1. Field Sobriety Test:

These are physical tests to check your coordination and alertness. They might include walking in a straight line, standing on one leg, or following a moving object with your eyes.

  1. Preliminary Alcohol Screening:

Often conducted with a handheld device, this breath test gives an initial reading of your blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

  1. Arrest:

If the officer believes there's enough evidence, you may be arrested for OWI. This typically involves reading your rights and transporting you to a police station.

  1. Formal BAC Testing:  

At the station, a more accurate BAC test will be conducted using advanced equipment, usually a breathalyzer, but sometimes a blood test.

  1. Booking:

Your personal information and details of the arrest will be recorded. Depending on the jurisdiction and the severity of the charge, you might be released on bail or held until a court hearing.

It's essential to remain calm throughout this process and remember your rights. If faced with an intoxicated or drunken driving charge, it's advisable to contact a DUI defense lawyer promptly for guidance.

Mitigating an OWI Charge

man, lawyer, office

Facing an OWI charge can feel overwhelming, but it's crucial to remember that you have options and rights. Taking proactive steps can help mitigate an OWI charge's impact, possibly leading to reduced penalties or even a dismissal.

Here's what you should consider:

  1. Hire a Skilled Attorney:

An experienced OWI attorney can be a crucial resource. They understand the intricacies of the law, can identify possible defenses, and might negotiate better terms on your behalf.

  1. Assess the Arrest Procedure:

Were your rights respected during the arrest? Did the police officer follow proper protocol, especially regarding BAC testing? Any discrepancies could be grounds for challenging the OWI charge.

  1. Attend Alcohol or Drug Counseling:

Taking the initiative to enroll in and complete counseling or rehabilitation programs can show the court you're committed to making amends and avoiding future offenses.

  1. Seek Plea Bargains:

In some cases, it might be possible to plead to a lesser charge, reducing penalties and the charge's long-term implications.

  1. Good Behavior:

Maintaining a clean record after the charge, attending all court appointments, and complying with any interim conditions can favorably impact your case.

FAQs about OWI Offenses

Given the complexities around OWI charges and their implications, it's no surprise that individuals have many questions. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding OWIs:

What does OWI stand for?

OWI stands for "Operating While Intoxicated." It refers to the act of operating or being in control of a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs, even if the vehicle isn't being driven.

What is the difference between DUI and OWI in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, the term OWI is predominantly used, standing for "Operating While Intoxicated."

While many states use DUI for "Driving Under the Influence" for drunk driving offenses, Wisconsin's OWI encompasses a broader range of situations, such as being in control of a vehicle without driving it.

The state has specific penalties and laws pertaining to OWI offenses, including what constitutes a felony offense and triggers more severe penalties.

Is OWI worse than DUI in Indiana?

In Indiana, OWI and DUI are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, the predominant term is OWI.

Thus, it is not that an OWI is worse than a DUI in Indiana. It is simply a matter of terminology. The seriousness of the offense depends on factors like the driver's BAC, whether there was an accident and more.

Is OWI worse than DUI in Michigan?

Michigan predominantly uses the term OWI. Like Indiana, the state might use OWI and DUI interchangeably, but the primary charge is OWI, which includes scenarios where an individual operates a vehicle while intoxicated, even if not driving.

Again, penalties vary based on factors like BAC level, the presence of minors in the vehicle, and prior offenses.

The Bottom Line

So, what is an OWI? An OWI is roughly similar to a DUI, as the charge is called in most states, though some states use different terminology.

OWI stands for "Operating While Intoxicated" and can cover more conduct than simply driving, such as being in a parked car with the engine on.

An OWI charge is a serious matter, carrying both immediate and long-term consequences that can profoundly shape one's life. If you have other questions or are facing an OWI charge, consider speaking with an experienced attorney today.