What Is the Legal Alcohol Limit in Iowa?

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What most states call DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated), Iowa calls OWI, or operating while intoxicated. While the acronym might differ a little, those who operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs in the Hawkeye State will face the legal music much like they do anywhere else. And just as elsewhere in the U.S., that "influence" is determined by a very objective blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit. Of course, the legal limit is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to OWI laws that every Iowan should be aware of.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

A blood alcohol concentration level of 0.08 percent is the legal limit in the state of Iowa.

Iowa's Drunk Driving Laws

To be labeled as operating while intoxicated, or OWI, a motor vehicle driver in Iowa must have a certain blood alcohol concentration, or BAC. According to the Iowa Legislature, that legal limit is 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration for noncommercial drivers over the age of 21. This concentration of alcohol may be measured by a blood, urine or breath test, as attorney Riccola Voight of Nolo notes.

While the 0.08 percent limit applies to most civilian drivers, those operating commercial vehicles may only drive legally with a BAC of under 0.04 percent. Even stricter still, Iowa practices a zero tolerance policy for underage drivers, so for motorists under the age of 21, the legal BAC limit is a meager 0.02 percent, which reflects an effort to ward off bad habits in budding drivers.

While 0.02 percent to 0.08 percent may be the legal limit depending on the driver's situation, fines and other penalties for OWI in Iowa scale depending on the age of the intoxicated driver, their BAC and their existing history of OWI convictions. Of course, these BAC limits don't just apply to Iowans; anyone who uses Iowa's roads may be subject to an OWI test if a law enforcement officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the driver is under the influence.

OWI Fines and Criminal Penalties

For first-time offenders, Edgar Snyder & Associates point out that Iowa considers operating while intoxicated a simple misdemeanor, but the legal consequences naturally escalate from there. The fines and penalties for OWI in Iowa are:

  • First offense: Drivers may receive a fine of up to $1,250 (substantially less if no person or property sustained damage as a result of the OWI) and imprisonment from a minimum of 48 hours up to a maximum of one year. The offender may also receive a driver's license suspension of 180 days, or up to a year.
  • Second offense: This falls under the aggravated misdemeanor category and may entail a fine between $1,875 and $6,250, as well as jail time of seven days or as much as two years. License revocation is extended to a period of one year.
  • Third offense and beyond: These are Class D felony offenses, according to the Law Office of Raphael M. Scheetz in Cedar Rapids, for which convicted motorists may face fines that start at $3,125 and reach up to $9,375, as well as 30 days to five years in prison. In these cases, driver's license revocation lasts for six years.

Additionally, if the OWI offense resulted in the need to dispatch emergency services, such as firefighters or medical personnel, the fines can grow by $500 per each agency dispatched. The state also requires everyone convicted of an OWI in Iowa to undergo a substance abuse consultation, and the court may order some offenders to enroll in lengthier substance abuse prevention programs. For drivers under the age of 21, this can include enlistment in the state's Youthful Offender Substance Abuse Awareness Program or even an educational trip to the local morgue (no joke).

Multiple offenders or those convicted of OWI while also driving without a license may have their vehicles impounded at the discretion of the court. Likewise, courts may choose to require the installation of an ignition interlock device (IID) in the vehicles of repeat OWI offenders. An IID is essentially a handheld breath testing device that prevents the car from starting until the BAC test is taken.

More on Iowa OWI Penalties

Many of the consequences of drunk or impaired driving in Iowa center around driver's license revocation, and it's not quite as simple as tacking on more time with each offense. For instance, the driver's license may be revoked for an additional year if the OWI offender caused another person serious injury, or for six years if the offense caused another person's death, even on the first offense. Refusing to take an OWI test may also result in a loss of driving privileges for a year or two years if the driver has previously refused the chemical test.

While the license is revoked, the offender has the right to request a restricted, temporary driver's license once they pass a certain revocation period determined by the court. This period varies in length according to the circumstances of the OWI conviction. Any commercial driver guilty of an OWI offense in Iowa will lose the right to drive a commercial vehicle for a year.

This penalty rockets up to three years if the commercial driver was transporting hazardous materials at the time of the offense. On the subsequent offense, drivers may lose their commercial license for life, or for no less than a period of 10 years.

Iowa's Dram Shop Act

Iowa's Dram Shop Act adds another wrinkle to OWI in Iowa. Under this statute, any person injured by an intoxicated person may be entitled to damages from the licensed drinking establishment which served the offender leading up to the incident, provided that the establishment knew or reasonably should have known that person was or would be intoxicated.

It's for this reason that establishments with a liquor license in the Hawkeye State are required to maintain dramshop insurance of at least $100,000, according to the State of Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.