Michigan Criminal Law: Traffic Offenses; OUI/OWI’s under Michigan Law

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Generally speaking, assuming there is no accident involving injury to person or significant property damage, there are three primary drunk-driving charges under Michigan law; “super-drunk,” operating while intoxicated, and operating while impaired. The specific charge is heavily influenced by the accused individual’s alleged blood alcohol content, or “BAC.” This alleged level is usually determined through either breath-based tests like a Datamaster at the police station or by a blood-draw.

OUI/OWI’s involving death or personal injury causing “significant impairment of bodily function” are charged as felonies. See MCL 257.625 (4) & (5). These are the most severe charges. If convicted, a person who causes death to a law-enforcement officer while intoxicated, for example, could be looking at up to twenty-years in prison or more if they have prior felony convictions. See MCL 257.625 (4)(c). These charges are very serious and may also involve significant personal injury lawsuits and permanent administrative sanctions for the alleged defendant; in addition to the possible penalties for a conviction related to the criminal charges.

These various types of OUI/OWI charges also have repeat-offender enhancements for people with multiple convictions. If a person has prior convictions or even a single prior conviction, their next charge could mean their penalties if convicted would escalate considerably, including up a felony charge depending on the number of prior convictions and length of time.

The following description breaks down and lists the possible penalties for first-time offenders for three of the more common OUI/OWI charges.

MCL 257.625 (1) states “A person, whether licensed or not, shall not operate a vehicle upon a highway or other place open to the general public or generally accessible to motor vehicles, including an area designated for the parking of vehicles, within this state if the person is operating while intoxicated.”

Michigan has a “super-drunk” law. This charge is usually levied against someone if their alleged blood-alcohol level is above .17. MCL 257.625 (1)(c). Generally speaking, a person convicted of this variation is looking at the toughest punishments for first-time offenders. Those punishments may include “imprisonment for not more than 180 daysMCL 257.625 (9)(a)(ii), probation up to two years, community services, fines, costs, or other sanctions. Further, a person convicted of this charge may have actions taken against their vehicle or their license by the Department of State, including mandatory suspensions, vehicle impound, license revocation, driver’s responsibility fees, or sanctions as authorized and administered, depending in part on a person’s prior driving record, by the Department of State.

Operating While Intoxicated is the middle tier; this is commonly charged against individuals who have an alleged level above .08 but less than .17.  MCL 257.625 (1)(b).  The prosecutor needs to prove the elements of this charge beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction. This charge is common if a person tests above the “legal limit” of .08 BAC. If convicted, sanctions may include up to 93 days in jail, probation up to two years, community services, fines, costs, or other sanctions. Further, a person convicted of this charge may have actions taken against their vehicle or their license by the Department of State, including mandatory suspensions, vehicle impound, license revocation, driver’s responsibility fees, or sanctions as authorized and administered, depending in part on a person’s prior driving record, by the Department of State.

Operating While Impaired is the lowest tier; this is commonly charged against individuals who have an alleged level below .08. MCL 257.625 (1)(c).

As the name implies, the prosecutor must prove “due to the consumption of alcoholic liquor, a controlled substance, or other intoxicating substance, or a combination of alcoholic liquor, a controlled substance, or other intoxicating substance, the person’s ability to operate the vehicle is visibly impaired.” MCL 257.625 (3).

It is important to note that there is no floor, in terms of the level. If a person, for example, had a very low-level, say around .03, and if the prosecutor could still prove that it impaired their driving, the individual could be convicted of Operating While Impaired. Generally speaking, the penalty for this charge for a conviction, while the possible jail term is the same as Operating While Intoxicated, or 93 days, MCL 257.625 (11), the rest of the possible sanctions, including those administered by the Department of State, are significantly less than the other charges.

The term “legally drunk” under Michigan law is a misnomer. The varying alleged blood-alcohol levels assist in categorizing the various offenses; however, even very low levels may be basis for a charge if they impair a person’s ability to drive.

We represent clients throughout Michigan on traffic offenses and all types of criminal charges. Let our highly experienced and diligent trial attorneys assist you. For a free initial consultation, please call our Lansing office at (517) 507-5077.

For information on additional Michigan Traffic offenses such as operating on a suspended/revoked/denied license, click here.

For information about vehicle owner responsibilities if a driver is charged with OUI, click here.

Anyone charged, of course, is presumed innocent. The prosecutor would need to prove the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt if the matter proceeded to trial. Simply because a person is charged does not mean that ultimately, they will be convicted.
If you need specific legal advice for your particular circumstances, I encourage you to privately consult with a lawyer. Circumstances may vary significantly. If you need specific legal advice, please privately consult with a lawyer.
If you are charged with an offense and cannot afford to pay for your own defense, the court may appoint you an attorney payable at the public’s expense. You have a right to counsel.