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Kevin O'Flaherty

Civil and criminal matters are related and intersect at times but are separate actions that run on their timelines.  

The Department of Transportation civil proceedings are triggered by a person’s test failure or a test refusal. The arrest initiates the criminal case for operating while intoxicated.  

Being arrested and charged with an OWI in Iowa is a serious matter and warrants extreme care being paid to get the matter addressed. The timing of what to do next is vital for top OWI defenses that work to get potentially get charges dropped or dismissed. If you are not successful in taking the proper steps in time, it could carry severe financial, criminal, and driving penalties.  

Most Significant Areas of Concern in an OWI In Iowa

Driver’s License:  

The most immediate issue with an OWI charge is losing driving privileges. You risk having your license suspended for two years unless you take immediate legal action. Not being able to legally drive can cause complications in a person’s personal life. We live in a state where public transportation does not serve all our transportation needs. Also, driving after the state has taken your license after an OWI will only cause additional legal woes.  

What are The Biggest Factors at Risk with an OWI in Iowa?  

Time in Jail:  

The penalties for OWI vary depending on how many traffic violations you’ve had, and the circumstances around your DUI. But all OWI carry jail time or prison sentences. As a first offender, you may face a minimum jail time of 2 days in jail up to a year. For a 2nd offense, you are looking at seven days in jail, up to two years in prison. For a third offense, you are looking at a minimum of 30 days in jail and up to five years in prison. Fortunately, hiring an experienced OWI lawyer to defend you can potentially get the charges dismissed. Or amended to the bare minimum to help you get a small level of punishment in terms of jail.  If you were charged with an aggravated OWI in Iowa read our article What is an Aggravated OWI in Iowa? for more information.  


Even after serving judgment and paying your fines, an OWI doesn’t go away. It will last for 12 years if you get another OWI for enhancement purposes. Every time you apply for jobs, you may have to disclose your criminal conviction. Most employers even go as far as to verify this information by wanting a criminal background check. Often, a conviction of OWI is seen as a liability, especially if driving is a component of the job. Thus, it affects how desirable you are to future employers. Fortunately, hiring an experienced OWI lawyer to defend you can get you acquitted or get your OWI charges dropped, which is an excellent way to protect your reputation, and, ultimately, your career.  

Financial Consequences:  

OWI offenses can be notoriously expensive. The most significant punishment of an OWI charge is the price tag. For a first OWI offense, these costs range between $1250 to $3,000, much higher. You may have to pay a fine of $1250for for a first-time OWI. There are also unofficial fines such as court costs.    

Further, you may be ordered to go to a 2-day OWI school. You will pay for an OWI school course or alcohol treatment program here. This program lasts for two days and has fees associated with it.    

Your car may also be towed and impounded, requiring you to pay for each day your vehicle is impounded before you get it back.  

License reinstatement comes with a fee. Further, your auto insurance premiums can increase, as the insurance company will be liable to you as a moderate to high-risk individual.  

If you get a temporary restricted license, you will have to install an interlock device, which carries its fees.    

The price of that first OWI just shot through the roof. The cost is one of the reasons to have your OWI case evaluated by an experienced OWI to see if you can avoid any of these fees/fines entirely or even some of them.  

Police Conducting DUI test next to police car

Why Hire an Attorney?  

In Iowa law, you don’t have to drive to violate the OWI law – you only need to “operate” any motorized vehicle. Operating can mean more than just driving. Iowa uses the term motorized vehicle as they don’t just mean cars, which that if a person is in the driver seat of a motorized vehicle. The engine is running; they could be found guilty of an OWI. It would be best for an attorney familiar with the current case law on operating motorized vehicles to make sure the officer was not overzealous in charging when it did not apply.    

Did Everything Regarding the Traffic Stop-Go by the Book?  

  • Was the traffic stop an Illegal stop? Police officers must adhere to specific rules, procedures, and laws when they pull you over. If they fail to do those things, they may have to void your criminal charge, and your criminal charges may be reduced to something less severe.  
  • Some medical issues can cause you to fail a sobriety test, even if you are not intoxicated. Additionally, certain medications can make it difficult to ascertain your Blood Alcohol Content through the testing used by police officers. Does their testing on the scene show what they say it shows about your state of being at the time?  
  • Was the way the testing was performed and conducted reliable? The tests, equipment, and techniques used by the police officers in an OWI stop are not infallible. They are conducted by people who, at times, make mistakes in the administration. Standardized field sobriety tests are not always accurate or reliable. Your lawyer will be able to evaluate the accuracy of said tests and inform you if there is something to argue about here in your case.    
  • Are there issues that may not be apparent? To evaluate this, an experienced OWI attorney will request evidence in the case: Some police departments require officers to video traffic stops. If your lawyer can obtain this evidence, he or she can determine how good/bad the sobriety test was and whether the case hinges on the police officer’s word against the defendant. Whether the facts as laid out by the police officer in their report and the criminal charge are really what happened. Whether the police officers invoked informed consent appropriately and followed all the procedures, they were expected to. These are all factors that can be evaluated and discussed with an experienced OWI attorney.    


What Does the OWI Civil Case Look Like?  

The timeline for the Department of Transportation’s case regarding your licenses moves the fastest. After notice of a test failure or refusal, your license is revoked.    

A person can immediately request a hearing with the Iowa Department of Transportation to appeal the license revocation. This has to be done within ten days. Filing this appeal puts a stay (puts on hold) the license revocation, usually allowing the individual to continue driving. If it is not appealed within ten days, the person loses their right to an administrative hearing, and their initial driver’s license revocation will be enforced.  

After the appeal has been filed, the Department of Transportation must schedule the driver’s license revocation hearing for a date less than 45 days after the appeal date. This hearing is typically conducted by telephone. The proceeding held by the Department of Transportation is not criminal but rather a civil procedure, so the burden is on the driver to prove that the evidence did not authorize the police officer’s request for a breath, blood, or urine test or that the investigating officer made a procedural mistake. The state will typically not show up in any capacity for this. It will primarily be the ALJ, police officers, drivers, and attorneys.    

This hearing has the potential to serve as evidence gathering as the officer testifies under oath regarding the case without any assistance from the state. There is also a tiny chance the officer will not attend, and it will be dismissed. Additionally, if a motion to suppress was filed in the criminal case and the ruling was granted. The evidence cannot be used in the civil proceedings before the Department of Transportation.    

After the hearing, the Department of Transportation ALJ will issue a decision in the case before them. If either party after the ruling is issued disagrees, the losing party to the driver’s license appeal has ten days from receipt of the DOT’s proposed decision to file an additional appeal requesting a review by the Director of Driver Services.  

If that appeal is made in the appropriate 10-day window, additional time may be granted to submit written arguments. The license suspension becomes final if the appeal is not filed in that 10-day window.  


What Does the OWI Criminal Case Look Like?  

After your arrest date, the State prosecutor has 45 days to file formal charges. Unless there is good cause for a late filing of the trial information after those 45 days, the court will dismiss the charge with prejudice. Meaning the case is gone forever and cannot be refiled.    

If the trial information is filed more than 45 days after your arrest and initial appearance, the criminal case against you will move forward. The next step in the process is the trial information will be evaluated by a district associate judge who will determine if the evidence listed in the minutes of the testimony of the Trial information filed by the state could warrant a conviction by a jury. Absent the circumstances of the charge being odd, this phase of the process is almost automatic.    

After your arrest, the first Court date set will be for the preliminary hearing. This procedure is rarely used. It is essentially a formal hearing for the state to present all of its evidence, that there is enough to potentially warrant a conviction. The same standard as the one set for the trial information. Typically, though this hearing is set, it is not held, and the trial information is filed instead. The preliminary hearing date is more relevant for those who remain incarcerated after an arrest. It forces the state to move faster on your case, at least in the preliminary stages of your criminal case.    

After the Trial information has been filed and approved by the judge, a date for Arraignment on the criminal charge is set. The Arraignment is the time for a formal response to the OWI to be given, guilty or not guilty. Typically, you will be required to attend all hearings set from this point on unless a plea agreement or plea is on file before that date.    

Typically, this period between the Arraignment and the first pre-trial is when the state turns over evidence it has on the case. There is time to review how strong or weak the state’s case is. If you demand your speedy trial right, the state must bring you to trial within 90 days of filing the trial information. You and your attorney can discuss whether it makes sense for you to demand this right to trial in 90 days or if more time is needed to prepare the case. Your experienced OWI lawyer will also discuss whether the filing of various motions is appropriate in this interim period in the criminal case. The motion that can be filed in this time period is motions to suppress evidence resulting from the violation of your rights during the OWI stop and investigation. These motions must be made within 40 days of your Arraignment unless there is reasonable cause to do so otherwise. You can also decide whether to conduct depositions of the witnesses during this lull in your criminal case.    

At the first pre-trial conference, after evidence has been reviewed and any motions are hashed out, the state will present its offer on your criminal case. At that time, you and your attorney can discuss what is best for you and whether the state’s offer makes sense.  

If at the pre-trial conference you plead guilty or are found guilty, the fines, civil penalties, court costs, and other related fees such as probation fees or the OWI weekend program tend to cost over $2,000 or more for first OWIs. The total weight of fines will be based on the totality of circumstances, and your cases could potentially be delayed to allow you to have time to prepare for the possible criminal fines.  

If at the pre-trial conference, the decision is made not to accept the offer. Suppose other alternatives will be discussed at that time. Otherwise, the case will be prepared to go to trial and have a jury determine whether the state can prove the charge or not based on the evidence they have.    


Police lights in car rear view mirror

The Way the Traffic Stop Occurred Impacts the Outcomes  

When a person is arrested for OWI in the state of Iowa, there are processes and rights you need to be aware of and different variables that could affect the outcome of your case. These are some other areas of concern regarding your OWI case, which will and can be discussed further with an OWI attorney.    

Under Iowa law, you are not legally obligated to perform field sobriety tests if requested by a police officer. Additionally, as part of the OWI traffic stop, the officer typically uses the hand-held breath test, formally called the preliminary breath screening test (PBT test). These can be used by law enforcement in an OWI stop. However, its use and results for an OWI prosecution are inadmissible at trial.    

During an OWI traffic stop/investigation, if there are reasonable grounds to believe you are intoxicated, the police officer likely will ask you to provide a breath test at the police station under Iowa’s implied consent procedures/laws and may request possibly a urine test if the police officer suspects/believe that you have drugs in your system.  

Before asking for your implied consent to a breath test, you have the right to make a phone call to a family member or attorney before deciding whether or not to take the test and even have the right to an in-person consultation with an attorney.  

If you refuse the implied consent test, your driving license will be revoked for one year for the first license revocation. You will also become ineligible for a deferred judgment. The criminal case can still proceed against you even if you refuse to blow it if there is enough circumstantial evidence that you were intoxicated. The test was just one more piece of evidence the state wanted to obtain against you.    

Take the requested informed consent test and your blood alcohol level is above .084. Suppose your blood alcohol level on the implied consent test result is .150 or above. In that case, you are ineligible for a deferred judgment. Additionally, you are only eligible for a deferred judgment for a first offense OWI. Your license revocation period will be 180 days, about six months.  

After giving the police officer the requested informed consent test during an OWI investigation, if you believe the first breath test was inaccurate or invalid, you can also ask to blow in the Data master breath test a second time if you wish after a fifteen-minute wait period.    

Or you can request an alternate test entirely, such as a blood or urine test, instead of breath, but only after you have taken the first implied consent test requested. The drawback to requesting these other testing methods is that blood or urine tests could detect other substances in your body that would apply to an OWI in Iowa. If the test detects any amount of marijuana metabolite or other illegal drugs in your urine, which can be used is per se evidence of OWI in Iowa. So requesting these tests are a balancing act. However, if you have a valid prescription, are not mixing your prescription drugs with alcohol, and are not abusing your prescription drugs, the law is not violated.  

However, this article provided an overview of Iowa OWI laws and the various processes and procedures that trigger when one is arrested for an OWI. Hopefully, it helped you understand all of the various parts in the play and some of the factors you have to weigh now. An OWI conviction can have a long and profound impact on your life. Whether this is your first, second, or third charge, the penalties seriously impact your life and most affect your finances. If you have any questions regarding Iowa OWI laws or your OWI case, contact one of our experienced OWI lawyers at (630) 324-6666.

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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