Iowa OWI Laws: About Drunk Driving, Penalties & More

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Most of us have heard of a DUI (driving under the influence) and a DWI (driving while impaired), but drivers in Iowa need to know about an OWI, the offense of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Like most states, Iowa makes it illegal to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol or to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level at or exceeding 0.08 percent. It is also an OWI to drive when any amount of controlled substance shows up on a blood, breath or urine test.

OWI in Iowa

Operating while intoxicated in Iowa is this state's take on the drunk and drugged driving laws. Despite the different initials, Iowa Laws Section 321J.2 looks very much like the DWI and DUI laws of other states. It creates three categories of OWI, two of which are found in the drunk driving laws of many states.

The first category of OWI makes it a crime to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Operating a motor vehicle in Iowa means to have immediate, actual, physical control over a motor vehicle that is in motion and/or has its engine running. This charge requires the state to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the individual was driving under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or other drug or a combination of both.

A person with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is legally presumed to be driving intoxicated without any further evidence.

The second type of OWI is a "per se" offense based on a driver's BAC level. A person with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is legally presumed to be driving intoxicated without any further evidence. The third type of OWI is not found in many other state laws. It makes it illegal for a person to drive with any discernible amount of controlled substance in their system. Controlled substances are certain drugs listed in the statutes.

Chemical Testing in Iowa

In Iowa, when a driver elects to use the public roads in the state, they are deemed to consent to take a chemical test if requested to do so by the police. The police officer must have reasonable grounds to believe that the person has been operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated in violation of Iowa laws.

Which chemical tests are used in Iowa? Chemical tests to determine a driver's BAC level include the standard breath test, a blood test or a urine test. Specimens taken are used to determine the alcohol concentration or presence of a controlled substance or other drugs. The police officer decides whether to obtain a blood, breath or urine sample.

While the law enforcement officer can take breath or urine from the driver, the person must be taken to a medical professional to take a blood sample. The chemical test must be taken within two hours after a preliminary breath test is administered or refused, or the arrest is made, whichever occurs first. If more than this time passes, no chemical test is required, and the driver cannot be sanctioned for refusing to submit to a test.

Penalties for Refusing a Chemical Test

Regardless of this law about deemed consent, the police in Iowa usually will not force a person to take a test unless the person caused serious injury or death to another. However, there are penalties for refusing. If the driver refuses to take a chemical test, the state revokes the person's driving privileges for a year, or for two years if the driver has previously refused to take a test.

General Penalties for OWI

Iowa laws specify the level of the crime and the punishments for driving while intoxicated in the state. The court assigns every person convicted of breaking the OWI laws to a program for substance abuse evaluation and treatment. Convicted drivers must also attend (and pay for) an educational program for drinking drivers, and, in some cases, a reality education substance abuse prevention program.

Courts can also require anyone convicted of an OWI to install an ignition interlock device on each of the vehicles they own at their own expense. An ignition interlock device, better known as an IID, is a type of breathalyzer installed in a vehicle. These devices prevent the motor vehicle from starting until the driver breathes into the machine and their breath is free of alcohol.

First-time offenders are required to get an IID only if their BAC was over 0.10 percent and they are seeking a temporary license. Drivers convicted of second, third and subsequent OWIs must install IIDs on their vehicles no matter what BAC level they had.

Other Penalties Under Iowa's OWI Laws

Of course, an OWI is a serious crime and other criminal penalties apply as well, including fines, jail or prison time and driver's license suspension. The level of these penalties depend on the prior record of the driver, that is, how many times the driver has been convicted of an OWI within the previous 12 years. This 12 year look-back provision measures the time between the date of the oldest conviction to the date of the current arrest.

Depending on the person's driving history, an OWI can either be a misdemeanor or a felony in the state of Iowa. A misdemeanor is a lesser crime where the potential jail time is capped at one year. A felony is a more serious crime where the potential prison time is over a year.

Fines and Jail Penalties for OWI

In Iowa, an OWI is classified either as a serious misdemeanor, an aggravated misdemeanor or a felony. The difference in potential time behind bars and fines is significant.

If a driver is convicted of an OWI charge and doesn't have any prior OWI convictions in the past 12 years for this crime, it is considered a first-time offense, a serious misdemeanor. The driver can be sentenced to a jail term of at least 48 hours, but not more than one year. The court may also impose a fine of $1,250, but has the authority to waive up to $625 of that amount if nobody was injured or suffered property damage as a result of the driver's behavior. Their driver's license will also be revoked for at least 180 days and up to one year.

Penalties for Subsequent OWI Convictions

A second OWI conviction is punishable by a minimum jail term of seven days. That jail sentence cannot exceed two years. The driver will be fined between $1,875 and $6,250 and have their license revoked for at least a year.

Any subsequent convictions are classified as Class D felonies. A 30-day prison sentence is mandatory, but the judge can impose a sentence of up to five years in prison. The minimum fine is $3,125 and a maximum fine is $9,375. The license revocation for a third or subsequent conviction is for six years.

Administrative License Revocation

Driver's license revocations in Iowa OWI cases are largely an administrative matter and handled by the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT). Generally these are done under the implied consent laws when a driver refuses to take a test or when they take and fail a test. This happens well before the criminal trial.

However, if for some reason the IDOT has not revoked the license before conviction, the court will order a revocation period as part of the sentence. Note that some drivers with revoked or suspended licenses are eligible for a temporary restricted license to get back and forth to school and/or work. In many cases, these drivers must install IIDs on their vehicles.

OWI Causing Serious Injury or Death

The potential imprisonment and fines discussed so far relate to simple OWIs. These may be driver's who were stopped at OWI checkpoints or simply pulled over for erratic driving. Sometimes, however, a drunk or drugged driver is arrested only after causing an accident resulting in personal injury or property damage.

If a person who is driving while intoxicated in Iowa causes serious injury to another, the offense is classified as a Class D felony. This does not depend on a driver's OWI record – the offense will be charged as a felony even if it is the driver's first OWI offense. This crime can be punished by up to five years in prison and carries a fine of between $750 and $7,500.

If a person injured by the OWI driver dies as a result of the accident, the driver is charged with a Class B felony. This is a much more serious felony than a class D. It is punishable by up to 25 years in prison, and the person's license can be revoked for up to six years.

Restitution Always Required by OWI Offenders

Every person convicted of an OWI is subject to a fine. But, in addition to any fine imposed, the Iowa court must order the driver convicted of an OWI to make restitution payments to those who were injured by the driver's actions. Restitution can include repayment for property damage or compensation for personal injury.

Sometimes public agencies in Iowa have to appear and respond to a person's OWI case. These can include firefighters, police officers, and medical and ambulance personnel. These agencies can also claim restitution from the driver, but the maximum amount per agency is capped at $500.

Iowa Underage Drivers and Alcohol and Drugs

Like all states, Iowa sets the legal drinking age at 21. Young people under 21 years old are not allowed to drive with alcohol in their system. Iowa's zero tolerance laws make it illegal for a person under the age of 21 to drive with a blood alcohol level of 0.02 or higher. This obviously is much lower than the per se OWI of 0.08 percent BAC.

The driver cannot be sent to jail for any period for a violation of the zero tolerance law. A young driver who is arrested for a first-offense violation of the zero tolerance law is sanctioned by a license revocation of 60 days. A second or subsequent offense causes a revocation of 90 days.

Other Penalties for Young Drivers in Iowa

A young driver is also subject to the deemed consent provisions in Iowa. So, if a driver under the age of 21 declines to take a chemical test when requested by a police officer, their license is revoked for one year for a first violation, two years for a second. They are not eligible for a temporary restricted license. These license revocations are independent of any criminal charges.

In addition to license revocation, a person who violates the zero tolerance law must attend and complete a youthful offender substance abuse awareness program. This program includes classes and a substance abuse evaluation.