In Iowa, the crime committed by a person who drives a car or other vehicle while impaired by alcohol or a drug is called Operating While Intoxicated (OWI). The OWI charge is governed by Iowa Code section 321J.
In Iowa, a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.08 or higher is per se unlawful, meaning a person commits the crime of operating while intoxicated if they operate a vehicle with such an alcohol level, even if they are not driving in a dangerous or erratic manner. For individuals under the age of 21 in Iowa, that BAC limit is 0.02. However, even without a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher, it is possible to commit and OWI in Iowa using alcohol if the state can prove that the driver was impaired by the alcohol. For controlled substances (drugs), being impaired by any amount of the drug is enough for an OWI conviction.
Failing or refusing to take an blood alcohol content test in Iowa also results in a driver’s license suspension, which is a separate matter from the OWI case.
Under Iowa law, an OWI can be charged when just about any vehicle is operated. While the most common vehicles that people allegedly operate while intoxicated are cars, trucks, and motorcycles, it is possible to be charged with an OWI while operating other vehicles such as boats or even riding lawnmowers.
A first offense OWI is Serious Misdemeanor, which means the maximum penalty is a year in the county jail upon conviction. A second offense is an Aggravated Misdemeanor, punishable by up to two years in prison. There are also mandatory minimum jail terms that the court is required to impose upon a conviction for OWI.
While the OWI law in Iowa makes OWI a serious crime, that does not mean that an OWI charge is insurmountable in all cases. Often, OWI defense involves reviewing the evidence to determine if there was a proper basis (probable cause) for law enforcement to stop the vehicle or otherwise come into contact with the person accused of OWI. Even if the stop was proper, it still may be possible to challenge the administration or results of the field sobriety tests and breath or blood test that allegedly show intoxication. In other cases, the issue of whether the prosecution has proper evidence to show operation of the vehicle by the person accused of OWI. Iowa’s OWI statute, and the caselaw created by the Iowa Supreme Court and Iowa Court of Appeals means that this area of law is a relatively complex one.
Even in cases where an OWI charge cannot be made to go away entirely, it is sometimes possible to avoid any jail time (or even a conviction). Under some circumstances, a person who has committed an OWI can receive a Deferred Judgment, which is where the person agrees to enter a guilty plea but the court does not actually find the person guilty. Instead, the person is placed on a term of probation, attends alcohol treatment as needed, pays court courts and a civil penalty, and then the case is dismissed without a conviction ever being entered. Certain requirements must be met for a person to be eligible for a Deferred Judgment, and that includes a blood alcohol level that is below 0.15.