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DWI, DUI, OWI and BUI: What Do They Mean?

Posted by Law Office of Justin T. Surginer

Alphabet soup. The human knack of abbreviating everything and using a few letters to describe it can make the law extra-confusing for anyone without exposure to the terms. When you’re picked up for a DWI, for example, how is it different from a DUI? And what about the OWI and the BUI? As the old song says: “You say tomato, I say tomato!” Doesn’t it just make you want to call the whole thing off?

OWIUnfortunately you usually can’t just call it off, not when you’ve been arrested and charged under any of these four acronyms. What you can do is to understand what they mean, how they (and their penalties) differ and why your situation might qualify for one and not another. Here’s the lowdown on the different ones:


This is the most common charge in this category, and it refers to Driving While Intoxicated. Individuals who are over the legal drinking age of 21 years and who are arrested for driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or higher are generally charged with DWI. If your BAC is between 0.05% and 0.08% but you are obviously impaired, you can be charged under DWI even though you aren’t officially over the limit. DWI can also apply to the use of drugs if the driver is impaired as a result of their use.


This refers to Driving Under the Influence, although it can apply to alcohol, narcotics, prescription or over-the-counter drugs too. It’s used specifically when a licensed driver under the age of 21 is found to have consumed alcohol or used drugs. The reason DWI is not used in these cases is because young drivers aren’t legally permitted to have any BAC, so it doesn’t actually matter whether you are intoxicated or not. If you have alcohol in your system you are considered to be under the influence and can be charged with DUI.


It’s not just motor vehicles that are dangerous during Operation While Intoxicated. Any type of heavy machinery and equipment can be equally hazardous if operated by an impaired person. Types of equipment that typically qualify for OWI include:

  • Forklifts
  • Earth-moving machinery
  • Factory equipment, such as metal presses
  • Cranes

However, OWI can also apply to driving while intoxicated, and is a more serious charge than DWI. The operator’s level of intoxication is determined by his BAC at the time of his arrest. In some cases, the accused can attempt to downgrade from OWI to DUI, if certain conditions apply. These include whether the person appears to be repentant and what the BAC level is compared with legal limits.


This one applies to Boating Under the Influence, which is a contributing factor in one-third of all fatal recreational boating accidents. Intoxication is considered more dangerous to boaters than drivers, because they are less experienced and less confident on the water than they are on the road. On average, the BAC of a boater who weighs less than 200 pounds is over the limit after two drinks.

In every state it is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of either alcohol or drugs and Texas polices its waterways according to BUI statutes. The Coast Guard has federal authority to apprehend boats in any waters, and to ask the state law enforcement to make an arrest.

Legal Penalties

The penalties typically differ for each of the charges, too.

  • DWI carries punishment of between 3 and 180 days in jail for first-time offenders, a fine of up to $2,000 and suspension of their license for between 90 days and a year. Second- and third-time offenders are likely to get higher sentences than the first time around, including an ignition interlock device on their car. Third-timers can get a sentence of a minimum of 2 years in prison.
  • DUI, because it usually relates to younger, mostly first-time offenders, typically carries a penalty of a fine up to $500 and suspension of the defendant’s driver’s license for up to 60 days. For second and third offenses, however, the penalties increase proportionately.
    The penalty for OWI, if you are unable to downgrade to a DWI, depends on the circumstances and the outcomes of the offense. Guidelines for OWI punishments are not clearly specified, and it’s a fairly new addition to the statute books.
  • BUI is usually prosecuted along similar lines to DWI and OWI. The punishment depends on the severity of the offense and its consequences. For example, if a fatality has occurred as a result of BUI, the defendant is likely to attract other charges in addition to the basic charge.

Regardless of what you’re charged with, you’re going to get some punishment to comply with, unless there are mitigating circumstances or you have a good Texas criminal defense attorney on your side.

*Image courtesy of Jenn Durfey

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