The Criminal Defense Law Center of
West Michigan

In this article, we'll discuss the difference between a DUI and OWI

The Difference Between DUI and OWI in Michigan

Getting arrested in the state of Michigan for a drunk driving is not only scary, but it’s also a confusing process. You may here many terms thrown around like DUI, OWI, DWI, & OWVI. If you’ve ever wondered, what’s the difference between DUI vs. OWI, then this article will tell you everything you need to know.

What is a DUI?

DUI is an acronym for drunk driving. DUI means driving under the influence. Another acronym is driving while intoxicated (DWI). We have had many clients come into our office with a ticket that says they have been arrested for DUI or DWI. Michigan’s  Michigan’s drunk driving laws are located at Michigan Compiled Laws 257.625.

The acronyms DWI and DUI are used nationally across the United States. Under Michigan law, these terms are not legal terms of art. The main reason for this is because these terms are very broad. 

There are police and prosecutors who believe people were able to get away with drunk driving because of how broad these acronyms were. If you are being charged with an DUI or a DWI, the punishments are exactly the same as if you have a ticket for being charged with an OWI. 

What is an OWI?

OWI is an acronym that stands for operating while intoxicated. This is the actual legal term used under Michigan law.

Under Michigan, operating while intoxicated (OWI) is defined as operating a vehicle:

  • With a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08% or greater
  • With any amount of a controlled substance in the body
  • While under the influence of any intoxicating liquor, or
  • While under the influence of any controlled substance or intoxicating substance.

The Michigan state legislature in 1999 changed the acronyms for drunk driving to OWI from OUIL and UBAL to OWI.  Michigan legislatures under pressure from state prosecutors wanted to only use one term. The reason why state prosecutors wanted this change is so both legal theories could be used to get a conviction by a prosecutor.  Under current Michigan law, an OWI can be proved when the state is able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that a person was either operating under the influence of liquor (OUIL) or where operating a motor vehicle while having and unlawful bodily alcohol level (UBAL).

Under Michigan law in 1999, the legal limit was .10 blood alcohol context (BAC). Under the law during that time period, if a person was found to have a BAC higher than .07 but below .10 you were presumed to be impaired by alcohol. If a person’s BAC measured at .10 or higher, the presumption was a driver was intoxicated. Any driver who was found to be below a .07 was presumed to be neither impaired or intoxicated and thus not in violation of any statue under Michigan law relating to drunk driving.

However, the law in Michigan changed in 2003. The legal limit was suddenly dropped to .08. The presumption of not being under the influence was also removed from Michigan law.

Because of this, a person can now be convicted of drunk driving even if they blow a breath test below .07.

Under this theory, a prosecutor must prove that a person’s ability to drive a car or truck on any Michigan roadway was “substantially lessened” by the person’s use of alcohol.

Under the changed Michigan law, OWI can be proven when a person isn’t even using alcohol.  People are charged with OWI for being under the influence of Ambien or Xanax. The requirement of showing a person’s ability to drive has been “substantially lessened” by alcohol does stay the same.

Michigan has a lesser offense called “operating while visibly impaired” (OWVI). A person driver can be convicted of this lesser offense if they display signs of being impaired by alcohol.  A person who is materially impaired is considered “under the influence.”

What is The Difference Between Operating and Driving?

The “D” found in the acronyms for DUI and DWI stands for driving.

Under Michigan law, the term driving means a person who is in literal physical control of a vehicle that is moving. 

So why did Michigan change this term “driving” to “operating”? The main reason for this, and many other states decided to do the same thing, is because a person can legally be operating a vehicle even when they are not driving the vehicle. A person only has to have control of a vehicle to be operating it. This means if you are just sitting on the side of the road in a motor vehicle you are operating it. You can even be sleeping in a car or truck and be operating it under this legal theory. 

Before the law was changed from driving to operating, many defense attorneys argued that a person was not driving a truck or car. A defense attorney could argue that a person sleeping on the side of the road was not driving. Or if the car wasn’t moving, a defense attorney would argue the car wasn’t moving and thus it wasn’t being driven. 

Since the new key legal term operating is so much more broad, the successful defenses of the past can no longer be used today. 

Prior to the change from DUI to OWI, a possible defense to a drunk driving charge would be that you were not driving.  Thus, if you were in a parked car, asleep, stopped in an intersection, or otherwise not actually moving, your case could be dismissed.  This defense is generally not available anymore because the term operation is much more broad.

Current DUI/OWI Punishments in Michigan

Here are the punishments for DUI and OWI convictions under Michigan law. 

OWI, First Offense – up to 93 days in jail, fines of $100 to $500, 360 hours (45 days) community service, vehicle immobilization at the court’s discretion, possible ignition interlock device during probation.

OWI, Second Offense – Jail time of 5 days to one year, most judges do not give up to a year in jail. They usually give anywhere from 15 to 60 days. The maximum fine is up to $1000 and the minimum fine is $200. Courts will sometime waive the fine.   The court may also give 30 days community service but no more than 90 days. Your car may have a ignition lock put on it. 

OWI, Third Offense – This is a felony charge. A person can face up to five years in prison if convicted of this serious charge. There is a mandatory minimum 30 days in jail. A person convicted for this charge will face up 60 days of community community service. The maximum a person can get is 180 days.  A ignition interlock device during probation, mandatory vehicle immobilization.

OWVI, First Offense – up to 93 days in jail, fines of up to $300, 360 hours and up to 45 days of community service. 

What Acronym Do Michigan Law Makers Use?

The Michigan legislature has adopted the acronym OWI for operating while intoxicated. The Michigan State Police and other law enforcement officers should also be using OWI instead of DUI or DWI. A person arrested for drunk driving may see a ticket that has DUI or DWI on it but in official court business settings it shall be called operating while intoxicated. 

Different states use different acronyms for drunk driving. Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island use the acronym OUI. It stands for operating under the influence. As we have discussed, Michigan uses the acronym OWI which stands for operating while intoxicated. 

There are other acronyms for drunk driving. OUI, or “operating under the influence,” is used in only three states: Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. OWI is an acronym for “operating while intoxicated” which is used in some jurisdictions. Illinois used the acronym DUI for driving under the influence. 

If you are pulled over and arrested for drunk driving, it does not matter what acronym the arresting officer uses on your ticket. The punishment for your OWI will be the same no matter what acronym the officer uses.

Recent Case Success!


I had a client who was near a high BAC drunk driving charge. He almost hit a state trooper while driving a truck. I was able to get his charge dropped down to an impaired driving and he also got no jail time! The client was extremely pleased with this outstanding result!


A client was facing an OWI first offense charge at Hudsonville district court. I was able to charge dropped to impaired driving which saved my client money and most importantly points off his driving record.

What To Do If You Are Arrested for a DUI/OWI/DWI

If you are pulled over by a police officer while driving a motor vehicle on any Michigan roadway and you are concerned that you may be under the influence of alcohol, the first thing you need to do is stay stay calm and be polite to the police officer. 

In some cases, the officer may not have believed the person was under the influence initially. After being treated with disrespect, the officer decided to dig a little deeper and the person was eventually arrested and convicted for an OWI offense. 

Know your rights and exercise your rights if you are pulled over for drunk driving!  An extremely common questions officers ask people they think maybe driving under the influence is “How much did you have to drink tonight?”  

Exercise your right to remain silent if you have been driving alcohol. If you answer in the affirmative, you are just hurting your chances of not being arrested for drunk driving.


Always use your right to remain silent!

Another common event that happens, when someone has been pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence, is the police officer asking the driver to take a roadside PBT.  

The preliminary breath test is not supposed to be administered until the officer has read the suspect their rights. You have a constitutional right to refuse this test. You should refuse to take this test. You will be issued a civil infraction, but you will not face criminal charges of the PBT refusal. The civil infraction will be a monetary fine, but you will not receive points on your record because of your PBT refusal.  This PBT test is not admissible at trial. It is only used to help the officer establish probable cause to arrest someone for OWI. 

If the police officer arrests you, you will be taken to a county jail or the police station for a chemical test. Before you take the chemical test, Michigan law requires a police officer to read the defendant their chemical test rights. 

After the officer has read the defendant their rights, they will be requested to submit to a breath, blood or urine test. The vast majority of cases have a person charged with drunk driving taking a breath test on a BAC datamaster.

You may refuse to take this test but then you will face a possible six points on your license and a one year suspension of your driver’s license.  The officer will then proceed to get a warrant signed that will require you to have your blood drawn. 

If you submit to a breath test, urine test or blood draw, you have a right to demand having your own independent test performed. You also have a right to demand that you speak to an attorney.  The right to speak to an attorney does not mean you get to speak to one prior to submitting to testing of your BAC. 

The officer not reading a suspect their Miranda Rights is not a get out of jail free card. It means the officer needs to stop asking you questions after you have been arrested that are designed to gather more information that will lead to your conviction of drunk driving. 

How We Can Help You Fight Your DUI/OWI/DWI Charges!

Attorney Shawn Haff and the lawyers at The Criminal Defense Law Center of West Michigan can help you get the best results possible. This may mean getting your charge dismissed.  It may mean getting you a not guilty verdict at trial. It may mean getting a lesser penalty than you are currently charged with and it may mean keeping you out of jail. 

Strategies OWI Defense Lawyers Can Use

Attorney Shawn Haff and his team of lawyers who specialize in handling drunk driving cases understand that officers can make mistakes during the process of arresting someone. Regardless of the intent of the officer, these mistake can result in a person who is innocent getting charged with drunk driving or facing more serious charges than they should be. We can find those mistakes and expose them to the prosecutor!

Defense Strategies a DUI Lawyer Can Use

Lawyers who specialize in handling DUI cases know that mistakes get made throughout the arrest process. These mistakes, whether intentional or not, can result in innocent people getting charged or more severe charges being sought. Exposing these mistakes in the prosecution’s case is what helps beat DUI charges.

One mistake we see happen quite a bit if a police officer improperly pulling someone over. If the officer doesn’t have grounds to pull you over in the first place, the charges maybe dismissed!

Our lawyers will examine the chemical tests to make sure the breathalyzer was being properly maintained and that proper procedures were be followed. If these procedures were being followed, you can get the results dropped. 

The Criminal Defense Law Center of West Michigan will also examine all the evidence to see if the prosecutor can prove you were driving your vehicle. If they can’t prove this, the case will be tossed or a jury must find you not guilty. 

Finally, we will also negotiate on your behalf. Trying to negotiate a deal with a local prosecutor can be tough and intimidating. Our OWI attorneys know how to fight for our clients and get them the best results possible. We will point out any weaknesses to the prosecutor.  This will cause the prosecutor to be willing to offer a lesser charge or maybe consider dropping the case. Attorney Shawn Haff can also use these facts to argue for a lesser punishment such as no probation, lower fines, and no jail or prison!

If you or any loved one is facing a charge of OWI/DUI/DWI, call Shawn now at 616-438-6719! You can not afford to wait! Waiting to call an attorney is one of the biggest mistakes we see people do on a regular basis! Call Shawn now!  

Get A Free Case Strategy Session