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District of Columbia Criminal Law: An Overview

Washington D.C., also referred to as the District of Columbia and D.C. is not a state but it does govern with a set of its own criminal laws. The laws that control in D.C. differ from the laws in the states surrounding it, Virginia and Maryland.

If you are faced with a criminal charge in Washington, D.C., you should educate yourself about the D.C. criminal justice system. Learn what the difference is between a misdemeanor and a felony, what the penalties are for driving while under the influence, and more.

Crime Classifications in the District of Columbia

Washington, D.C. has three main classifications of criminal offenses. From serious to least severe, these classifications are:

  • Felonies: The most serious category of criminal actions are felonies which are punishable by more than one year in prison. Crimes at this level include violent offenses such as murder, kidnapping, as well as rape and other sex crimes.
  • Misdemeanors: This category covers offenses that are less serious than felonies. Misdemeanors carry up to one year of jail time as part of its associated penalties, along with fines. Trespassing, vandalism, and being charged with possession of an open container of alcohol within the district’s borders are examples of misdemeanors.
  • Traffic violations: Unique to Washington D.C. is its classification of traffic violations. Many states file minor violations such as failing to come to a complete and total stop at a stop sign as a traffic violation with a penalty perhaps no more severe than a citation and a fine. In the District of Columbia, however, this would be considered a minor violation and would therefore be handled by the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. In addition, in Washington D.C., more serious criminal offenses such as driving while intoxicated (DWI) and driving while under the influence (DUI) are classified as traffic offenses.

Why Do Crime Classifications Matter?

Simply put, this system allows for crimes to be grouped by severity, while also dictating the minimum and maximum penalties associated with each level. A number of states further group felonies and misdemeanors by classes or degrees, but the District of Columbia does not. Instead, criminal charges and criminal offenses are assigned fixed penalties according to the district’s criminal law.

What’s the Difference between OWI, DUI and DWI?

The District of Columbia considers operating while intoxicated (OWI), driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated (DWI) to be separate offenses.

So, what’s the difference?

OWI: A driver also can be charged with operating while intoxicated if they have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of lower than .05%. Slurring, visible impairment, and failed roadside sobriety testing are among the evidence required for a charge of OWI.

DUI: Applies to anyone charged with driving a vehicle with a  BAC level of .05% and .08%. Note that a BAC level within the DUI range implies impairment.

DWI: Applies to a person having a BAC of .08% or higher.

Penalties for driving drunk in D.C. range from fines of $300-$1,000, up to 90 days in jail, and a license revocation of six months on first offense to fines of $2,000-$10,000, up to one year in jail, and license revocation for two years on a third offense.

Finding the Right Criminal Defense Lawyer

An entire process is set in motion once police officers have made an arrest and proceed with their criminal investigation. Law enforcement may pursue criminal charges. The char which will classify the severity of the alleged crime and the associated penalties. All criminal charges and criminal cases are serious and have many different repercussions, involving more than a criminal record. Criminal convictions can affect employment, housing, financial aid and many other aspects of life. Hiring legal representation, or having a public defender appointed, is essential to mounting a solid defense and getting a potential acquittal.

Keep the following suggestions in mind as you evaluate hiring a D.C. criminal defense lawyer. Evaluate the following to determine the appropriate legal representation for your criminal matter:

  • Practice areas: Does the law firm handle all criminal matters, or do they primarily handle a certain type of criminal law case? For example, do they handle primarily white-collar cases in federal court or do they handle drug offenses or other serious offenses and violent crimes?
  • Experience: Is the criminal defense lawyer an experienced attorney? Do they have proven experience as a trial attorney? What are their total years of experience? Do you feel like you can trust their legal advice?
  • Free consultations: Does the law firm offer a free consultation for potential clients? This may help you evaluate multiple attorneys and choose the right fit for your case.
  • Respect: Does every member of the law firm you interact with treat you with the respect and compassion you deserve?

Advocate for Yourself

You become an advocate for yourself when you take the time to educate yourself on the criminal justice system. At the very least, you become an active participant in the process, and may be able to contribute to your own criminal defense through your criminal defense attorney.

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