First Offense OWI in Iowa: Laws, Penalties & More

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In Iowa, a drunk driving offense is called an OWI, which stands for operating while intoxicated. The penalties for an OWI include a driver's license suspension, fines and imprisonment, and these increase with each additional conviction.

A simple first offense OWI is a misdemeanor in Iowa, but someone convicted might still spend time behind bars. Anyone driving a motor vehicle in Iowa should understand the OWI laws in the state. This includes the penalties for a first offense OWI.

Operating While Intoxicated in the State of Iowa

Every state makes it illegal for a person to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence. The crime is frequently called driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI), but in Iowa it is known as operating while intoxicated (OWI). This offense is set out in Chapter 321J of the Iowa Statutes and describes three different scenarios by which a person can commit the offense of driving while intoxicated.

The first way a person can commit an OWI in Iowa is to drive while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. This type of OWI can be established by testimony of the arresting officers as to what they witnessed of the driver's behavior both behind the wheel and when they were stopped.

If the driver had a red face, dilated pupils or other signs of alcohol or drug use, these factors can be presented. The smell or presence of alcoholic or drugs in the vehicle is also admissible evidence. The jury must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the person was driving while intoxicated in order to convict.

Per Se and Controlled Substance OWIs

The second type of OWI charge is called "per se," which means in and of itself. A person commits a per se OWI when they are driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 percent or higher. If this is established by chemical testing, no other evidence of impairment or intoxication is required to convict the person of an OWI. For commercial drivers, the per se OWI level is a BAC level of 0.04 percent.

The third type of OWI involves use of controlled substances. If any amount of a controlled substance is found in the driver's system, it is enough to convict them of an OWI. Controlled substances are those listed as such in the Iowa Code. Prescription medications that do not warn about drowsiness are not included.

Sanctions for OWIs

As is the case in most states, Iowa increases the criminal penalties for drunk/drugged driving for repeat offenders. That is, a first offense OWI carries the lowest sanctions, a second offense is punished more severely, while a third or subsequent conviction is much more serious. The look-back period for priors is 12 years. That is, if the time between the oldest conviction and the current arrest is 12 years or less, the crimes are counted as priors.

The level of these crimes is set out in the statute, with a first offense being a serious misdemeanor, a second offense being an aggravated misdemeanor and a third or subsequent offense classified as a Class D felony. These crime levels apply only to simple OWIs, not to those that cause personal injury or death, or that occur with aggravating circumstances.

Penalties for First OWI

The penalties for a simple first offense OWI will include a period of imprisonment in the county jail of not less than 48 hours and not more than one year. The person's driver's license will be revoked for at least 180 days, but not more than a year, and the driver can apply for a temporary restricted license to drive to work and/or school or medical appointments.

The court can assess a fine of up to $1,250, but has the discretion instead to order the person to perform a specified amount of unpaid community service. The court can also waive $625 of this fine if the person obtains a temporary restricted license. The convicted person can also be ordered to substance abuse evaluation and treatment, and to attend a course for drinking drivers.

In certain cases, the court will defer entry of judgment and instead order a period of probation with whatever conditions it feels are required. If the person obeys all of the conditions of probation for the time period assigned, they will be released without entry of judgment against them. This is not possible to do more than once, nor is deferred judgment possible if the OWI offender's BAC level was over 0.15 percent or if the person refused to take a chemical test.

First Offense Felony OWI

As described, a simple first-time OWI conviction in Iowa is a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are the less serious type of crimes in Iowa defined as those crimes punishable by not more than a year of jail time. Crimes that are punished by more than a year imprisonment are termed felonies. In certain circumstances, a first offense OWI will be charged as a felony in Iowa. This happens if the intoxicated driver caused serious injury or death to another person.

Serious injury can include a disabling mental illness or any bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death, results in permanent disfigurement or causes loss of a bodily organ. For serious injury, the charge would be a Class D felony. Penalties include a term in prison of up to five years and a fine of up to $7,500. The person's driver's license is revoked by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) for up to six years, and the court can order restitution to compensate for harm done.

If the driver kills someone as a result of intoxication, it is a Class B felony even if they have never before been convicted of an OWI. This is a very serious crime and can land the person a jail sentence of up to 25 years. The court will order restitution to the victim's family of at least $150,000.

Implied Consent Laws in Iowa

Iowa is one of many states that have implied consent laws. Under such laws, anyone driving in Iowa agrees to chemical testing by law enforcement for alcohol or drugs in exchange for privilege of using state roads and highways. Iowa chemical tests use a sample of the person's breath, blood or urine to determine the level of alcohol in their system.

This is basically an administrative sanction, not a criminal one. If a driver stopped for drunk/drugged driving refuses a police officer's request to take a chemical or breath test, they are subject to a driver's license revocation by the DPS. Likewise, if they take the test and are shown to have a BAC level above the legal limit, or have any controlled substances in their system, the DOT also revokes their license.

Ignition Interlock Devices

An ignition interlock device (IID) is a sort of breathalyzer machine that is installed in a person's vehicle. As with a breathalyzer, the driver blows into a tube on the machine, and the machine determines their breath alcohol content. The IID will permit the vehicle's engine to start only if the person's breath is clear of alcohol.

What happens after the car starts? Every so often, the IID requests another breath sample. The driver must stop the car and blow into the machine again. This prevents a person from starting up the car while sober, then drinking as they drive.

Under Iowa OWI laws, a person convicted of a first offense OWI will have their driver's license revoked. If they apply for, and are granted, a temporary restricted license, the court will order the person to install an IID on every vehicle they own or drive regularly. They must have the IIDs installed at their own expense and pay the monthly maintenance fees for each device.