Iowa makes it a crime to drive while intoxicated, also known as drunk driving. The offense is termed operating while intoxicated and abbreviated with the initials OWI. While it closely resembles the driving while intoxicated (DWI) and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI) laws of other states, it has its own quirks and peculiarities. Iowa also has its own set of penalties for OWI offenses that increase with subsequent offenses. A driver facing a second offense can expect more severe penalties, including more jail time and a longer driver's license revocation period, than resulted from the prior offense.
Iowa OWI Laws
Iowa OWI laws are found in Iowa Code Chapter 321J. This chapter contains the laws that make it illegal for a person to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated, as well as the implied consent laws. There are two separate elements of the OWI charge: A prosecutor must show 1) that the individual was operating a vehicle and 2) that the driver was intoxicated. Each of these elements raises some questions.
Operating a Motor Vehicle
Whether the wording of a particular state's law makes it illegal to "drive" a vehicle while intoxicated or to "operate" a vehicle while intoxicated, there is always an ambiguity about what exactly the person has to be doing to get arrested for the crime. For example, is sleeping off a few beers in the back seat of a car "driving"? How about if the individual is in the driver's seat passed out? Or maybe they are in the driver's seat, but the vehicle's engine isn't running. Each state answers these questions in their drunk/drugged driving statutes or, if not, in the state courts.
In Iowa, these questions were answered by the Iowa Supreme Court. The Court determined that the word "operate" in the Iowa OWI statute, means "immediate, actual physical control over a motor vehicle that is in motion and/or has its engine running." That means that someone asleep in the back seat isn't subject to an OWI, but someone asleep or passed out in the driver's seat can be if the engine is running or if the car is moving. Obviously, this won't be the case in most Iowa OWI arrests, but such cases do arise from time to time.
Intoxication in Iowa
The Iowa legislature spelled out three ways a person operating a motor vehicle could be found to be intoxicated for the purposes of the statute: impairment, blood alcohol level and controlled substances in their system. Each is entirely independent of the other, and a person commits an OWI if any one of them applies to the situation.
The first type of intoxication is impairment, or being under the influence. For many years, this was the only type of OWI in the state. This part of the Iowa statute was enacted in 1911 and remained the sole way to prove an OWI until the law was amended in 1982 to include blood alcohol concentration levels. A driver who is under the influence of either alcohol or drugs, or both, can be arrested under this provision, and the prosecution has the burden of proving that the driver's faculties were impaired. They often do this by using testimony of the arresting officers.
The law was amended in 1982 to include the second type of intoxication – blood alcohol concentration – when chemical tests were developed that could determine blood alcohol concentration or BAC. The initial legal limit was set at 0.13 percent or above, but it has been reduced several times and currently matches other states at 0.08 percent. For commercial drivers, the BAC limit is 0.04 percent.
Intoxication by Controlled Substances
The third and final way a person can be intoxicated for an OWI is by having a controlled substance in their system. This is also determined by chemical testing, but, unlike alcohol, there is no specific amount of a drug that is permissible. Controlled substances are listed in Iowa Code Sections 124.204 and 124.206.
The controlled substance OWI is not limited to use of illegal drugs, but includes over-the-counter and prescription drugs that cause drowsiness or dizziness. The labels of these types of drugs advise a person not to drive while using them.
Second Offense OWI Penalties
Iowa sets the level of penalties for an OWI conviction based on how many prior convictions the driver has had. That is, a first offense OWI carries less severe penalties than second offense OWIs, and subsequent OWIs incur even greater sanctions. Both first-time and second-time OWIs are misdemeanors, the lesser type of crime in Iowa.
While a first offense is a "severe" misdemeanor, a second offense is an "aggravated" misdemeanor with higher penalties. Note that to qualify as a second offense, the arrest must be within 12 years of a prior conviction.
Iowa Code Section 321(2) sets out these sanctions for a second offense OWI:
- A jail sentence of at least seven days but not more than two years.
- Fine of between $1,875 and $6,250, plus surcharges and fees.
- Driver's license suspension and vehicle impoundment for a period up to one year.
- Probation during which the driver must complete a court-approved substance abuse program.
Implied Consent Laws in Iowa
It is far easier for a prosecutor to get a conviction for a BAC-based OWI than for one based on impairment. This is called a "per se" OWI, meaning an OWI in and of itself. If a driver takes a chemical test and it comes back with a BAC over the legal limit, that evidence is enough, in and of itself, to prove intoxication. No other evidence of impairment is required.
Knowing this, why would a driver consent to take a chemical test? The legislature understood that test refusal might be an issue, so it enacted the implied consent law. This law provides that, in exchange for the right to drive on Iowa roads, a driver who is stopped by law enforcement officials for OWI is deemed to consent to take a chemical test to determine their BAC level.
Refusal to take a chemical test results in administrative sanctions, including one additional year of driver's license revocation. The loss of driving privileges occurs quickly after the refusal and does not depend on the outcome of the criminal OWI prosecution.
Temporary Restricted License
A driver convicted of a second offense OWI may be eligible for a temporary restricted license that allows them to drive on essential trips, such as to and from work, college or medical appointments. A driver who is granted the right to have a temporary restricted license must comply with certain conditions. One of these is to install an ignition interlock device (IID) in each vehicle they own or drive regularly.
An IID is a kind of breathalyzer device, like the kind a police officer asks a driver to blow into to determine their BAC. However, an IID is installed in the vehicle itself, and the driver must blow into it every time they want to start the car. If their breath is clear of alcohol, the IID permits the engine to turn over. But the device requires periodic breath tests while the car is moving as well, and the driver's failure to blow into the IID will trigger an alarm.
An IID is not cheap. The driver must use an approved company to install and maintain the device, and there is a fee for installation, as well as a monthly fee for maintenance. The driver must install a device in every car they own and every car they drive regularly, regardless of ownership. These fees can be seen as additional sanctions for a second OWI offense in the state of Iowa.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.