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Differences Between DWAI and DWI

October 4, 2011

Last week, the Buffalo News reported that a 29-year old driver with 2 prior convictions for DWAI has been charged with DWI in connection with his arrest for driving the wrong way down the Thruway.  The question in everyone’s mind is: “if this is his third offense, why wasn’t he charged with a felony?”  The defendant is being charged with a misdemeanor, which is considered a crime and is punishable by up to one year in jail, but he won’t be charged with a felony.  Here’s why:

His two prior convictions were for Driving While Ability Impaired. DWAI is defined as a traffic infraction, not a crime. Even though it’s an infraction, a defendant convicted of DWAI can be sentenced to up to 15 days in jail. A second conviction for DWAI within 5 years is also considered traffic infraction, but carries additional fines and a possible jail term of 30 days.

If he had one prior DWI conviction within the past 10 years, he would be charged with a Class E Felony. If he had two prior DWIs within 10 years, he would be charged with a Class D Felony.  However, the rule is not the same where a defendant, like the one in this article, is charged with Misdemeanor-DWI after having two prior DWAI convictions. If he is convicted of DWI, the court will certainly take his prior convictions into consideration at sentencing.

In this case, the District Attorney could choose to also charge him with DWAI as a “lesser-included offense” in order to increase the likelihood of securing a conviction. The DA would have discretion whether to charge it as an infraction or as a misdemeanor because this is his third DWAI within 10 years. The defendant is entitled to have proper notice at the beginning of the case as to what he is being charged with. If the DA chooses to charge “Misdemeanor DWAI,” the DA will have the burden of proving the existence of the two prior convictions within the past 10 years. A conviction on this charge will carry increased fines, up to 180 days in a penitentiary or county jail, or both.

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