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District of Columbia Criminal Law: An Overview

As the capital of the nation, the District of Columbia possesses its own criminal laws separate from those of Virginia and Maryland. Therefore, the penalties for most crimes will be different in Washington, D.C. than in these other two states.

Use LawInfo's criminal law articles to help educate yourself about Washington, D.C. laws and how they affect your case. You can learn about the difference between misdemeanors and felonies, intoxicated driving charges and many other state-specific criminal law topics. You can also use LawInfo to connect with a Washington, D.C. criminal law attorney.

District of Columbia Prosecutors File Criminal Charges

When you commit a crime, the police only perform an arrest, interrogate you, gather evidence and, if needed, testify in court. They don't prosecute you in a lawsuit. Instead, the Attorney General of Washington, D.C. prosecutes criminals charged with minor misdemeanors and traffic violations. The United States Attorney for Washington, D.C. prosecutes criminals charged with more serious misdemeanors, local felonies and federal offenses.

Washington, D.C. prosecutors and courts are unique in that they handle both local and federal cases. A U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C., for example, may prosecute both local drug possession offenses and federal terrorism cases.

Crime Classifications in the District of Columbia

Every state has its own system of classifying crimes which also identifies the statutory punishments for each classification. Washington, D.C. has three main classifications of criminal offenses: felonies, misdemeanors and traffic violations.

Unlike state criminal codes, Washington, D.C.'s criminal code doesn't subdivide felonies and misdemeanors into different classes. Every offense is assigned a fixed, individual penalty by the district's criminal laws. For example, in New York, second-degree robbery and an assault on a judge are Class C violent felonies, which carry an imprisonment term of 3.5 to 15 years. In Washington, D.C., these crimes wouldn't be classified or penalized similarly.

In general, however, there is a distinct difference between felonies and misdemeanors in the severity of their penalties. Felonies are the most serious criminal offenses that are punishable by more than one year of imprisonment. Murder, arson, kidnapping and rape are examples of felony offenses.

Misdemeanors are less serious offenses than felonies and carry up to one year of imprisonment. Trespassing, vandalism, and many vehicular offenses are examples of misdemeanors.

District of Columbia DWI/DUI/OWI Laws

Washington, D.C. imposes strict intoxicated driving laws that ensure penalties for drivers of any age who register at any level of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) during roadside testing. The legal drinking age in the district is 21 years of age. District law sets the legal intoxication limit for drivers age 21 and older at 0.08 percent BAC. Drivers under age 21 are not permitted to drive under any BAC level of intoxication (i.e. zero-tolerance).

There are three types of intoxicated driving offenses you could incur in Washington, D.C.:

  • Driving While Intoxicated (DWI)—The most serious intoxicated driving offense. After chemical testing, you register at a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater. Your driving abilities were visibly impaired.
  • Driving Under the Influence (DUI)—Less serious than a DWI offense. After chemical testing, you register at a BAC between 0.05 and 0.08 percent. Visible impairment is not required to be charged with a DUI—your BAC level implies impairment.
  • Operating a Vehicle While Impaired (OWI)—The least serious intoxicated driving offense. The only evidence police require to charge you with an OWI is visible impairment such as slurred speech, hazardous or slow driving and failure to pass roadside sobriety tests.

Intoxicated driving penalties start at up to 180 days of imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine.

Speak to an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Today

This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified criminal defense lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local criminal defense attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.

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