DUI vs. DWI: Is There a Difference in Washington State Law?

While many states have laws that distinguish between a DUI violation and a DWI violation, Washington State only recognizes DUI offenses. However, both terms are used interchangeably in everyday conversation. 

Is There A Difference Between DUI & DWI In Washington? 

Legally, there is no difference between a DUI and a DWI in Washington. A DUI stands for “driving under the influence” and is used to describe all impaired driving violations. 

A DWI stands for “driving while intoxicated” and is used in other states to differentiate between serious and lesser alcohol-related charges. However, in Washington State, the term DWI was predominately used in the 1980s and early 1990s when it appeared in the law books for the first time. 

Is There A DWI In Washington? 

In 1979, Washington began its reputation as having some of the harshest penalties for drinking and driving in the country. With the passing of new legislation, the state recognized a DWI violation as anyone operating a vehicle with a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of .10 or higher. 

The state introduced minimum sentences for driving while intoxicated:

  • 1 day in jail for a first-time DWI conviction
  • 7 days in jail for repeat offenders

The new laws also introduced mandatory attendance at an Alcohol Information School. Over time, the laws evolved to include driving under the influence of illegal or prescription drugs. 

Eventually, DWI violations were taken off the books in favor of a term that could encompass driving under the influence of any impairing substance. 

Is DUI A Felony In Washington? 

A DUI violation can be a misdemeanor or a felony in Washington State. Most DUI offenses are classified as gross misdemeanors. For example, when a person is arrested for a DUI for the first time and no one has been injured, they will likely be charged as a misdemeanor. 

A DUI becomes a felony charge in Washington when:

  • The driver has been convicted of felony DUI charges before
  • The driver has a vehicular assault or vehicular homicide conviction on their record related to driving under the influence
  • The driver has 4 or more DUI violations within the last 10 years

The penalties for felony DUI charges can be severe. 

What Are the Penalties for Felony DUI Charges? 

A DUI can either be a Class A, a Class B, or a Class C felony, depending on the circumstances. 

  • Class C felony DUI: When a driver is arrested for a DUI and has a prior vehicular assault or vehicular homicide conviction, they are charged with a Class C felony DUI. 

A conviction carries a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to 5 years in prison.  

  • Class B felony DUI: A DUI is considered a Class B felony when a driver causes serious injury to another person. The charge is described as vehicular assault. 

A conviction carries a maximum fine of $20,000 and up to 10 years in prison.

  • Class A felony DUI: Class A felony DUI charges apply when a person’s impaired driving causes the death of another. It is referred to as vehicular homicide. 

A conviction carries a maximum fine of $50,000 and up to life in prison.

If a motorist is convicted of a DUI more than 3 times in a 10-year period, the fourth offense is automatically a felony.

Can You Get A DUI Expunged?

You cannot get a DUI conviction expunged in Washington. The state has some of the harshest laws on the books regarding driving under the influence. 

Expungement is a process by which a person can seal their criminal records from public view. In many cases, it refers to the complete physical destruction of the court file. When expungement is granted, the person can move forward as if the conviction never happened. 

For alcohol-related convictions, they cannot be expunged or sealed. This is largely due to the fact that DUI sentencing can refer as far back as 7 years from the most recent conviction. For example, suppose you were convicted of a DUI seven years ago and stood before the judge convicted of your second DUI offense. The judge can use your prior DUI conviction to increase the severity of the penalties during sentencing. 

Without the hope of expungement, mounting a successful defense against your DUI charges is critical. A DUI defense attorney in Washington can discuss the unique circumstances of your case and work with you to develop a sound legal strategy.  


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