Justice Column

By: News Release
Dec 1st, 2018

This 95th Edition of Justice For All is a comparison of Iowa criminal law for operating while intoxicated (“OWI”) and controlled substance (“illegal drug”) offenses.

Many people have asked about the difference between OWI and drug laws. Often times these questions are prefaced with a conclusion that OWI laws provide more severe punishments than drug laws. It would be incorrect to draw this wide-ranging conclusion because the severity of the sentence in every case depends in large part on the specific crime in question.

The operating while intoxicated category of offenses includes: OWI 1st, 2nd, and 3rd offense, vehicular homicide by OWI, serious injury by OWI, OWI while eluding, and driving while revoked due to OWI. As would be expected, penalties vary based on the crime committed.

For an OWI 1st offense, which is the most common OWI offense, the maximum penalty is one year in jail with a two day minimum unless certain conditions such as a breath test under .15 are met in which case the defendant may receive a deferred judgment with no jail time. On the other end of the spectrum, vehicular homicide by OWI carries a mandatory 25 year prison sentence that must be imposed upon conviction along with a $150,000 victim restitution award to the victim’s estate or to the victim’s heirs at law if the victim died without a last will and testament.

The illegal drug category of offenses is broader than the OWI category and includes but is not limited to: possession of a controlled substance 1st, 2nd and 3rd offense, possession with intent to deliver, delivery, manufacturing, possession of a prescription drug without a valid prescription, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of precursors, and hosting, sponsoring, promoting, aiding, or assisting a “drug party”. Offenses are further categorized by the type of drug involved with marijuana offenses having different penalties than other drugs like methamphetamine.

The most common type of drug offense is possession of marijuana which has a two day minimum jail sentence and 180 day maximum. Any jail time for possession cases can be suspended or deferred at the court’s discretion. On the other end of the spectrum, crimes involving large quantities of methamphetamine have a mandatory prison sentence of 50 years with a 1/3 mandatory minimum and maximum fine of one million dollars.

Further complicating the OWI and drug offense comparison is the fact that some “OWI” offenses are actually more of a drug offense such as if the driver of a motor vehicle is intoxicated due to a controlled substance as opposed to alcohol. Other OWIs involve a combination of alcohol and drugs but in any event the penalties are the same regardless of the source of the intoxication.

Overall the OWI v. drug offense comparison is a complex one with many variables that can change the overall outcome. When my office resolves any case we look not just at the type and nature of the offenses, the legally mandated punishment range and level of discretion within that range but also to the defendant’s age, criminal history or lack thereof, employment status, family status, the potential for rehabilitation and feedback from the victim and/or the victim’s family with a goal in every case to reach a resolution that provides justice for all.