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Felony vs. Misdemeanor DUI in California

Felony vs. Misdemeanor DUI in California

Driving under the influence (DUI) is a serious criminal offense in California punishable by a range of steep and far-reaching penalties. While those penalties can be severe even in cases where drivers are charged with misdemeanors, drivers may face various enhancements and additional penalties when there are aggravating circumstances or felony charges involved.

Because the classification of a DUI as a misdemeanor or felony can substantially alter the scope of a case, the penalties a defendant faces, and the defense strategies they may have available, our legal team at Premier Criminal Defense has compiled some information outlining the key aspects of felony and misdemeanor DUIs in California.

Felony DUI: When is a DUI a Felony Offense?

In California, there are several ways motorists arrested for driving under the influence can be charged with felony DUI. These include:

  • Prior Convictions (Fourth DUI) – Being arrested for a fourth DUI within 10 years can result in felony charges, even if the DUI arrest would have been considered a standard misdemeanor under any other circumstance. For the purposes of calculating “priorable” offenses, any conviction for a California DUI, out-of-state DUI, or wet reckless is considered a prior. Three of any combination of these convictions means felony charges upon a fourth arrest within 10 years.
  • Prior Felony DUI – If a motorist has a prior felony DUI conviction at any time in the past, any new DUI charge they face can be prosecuted as a felony. As with the fourth DUI felony charge, drivers can still face felony allegations for a new arrest that would not typically be charged as a felony if there were no prior felony DUI conviction.
  • DUI Causing Injuries – A DUI resulting in an accident is an aggravating factor that can enhance penalties in any case. If that accident produces “great bodily injury,” to any victim, it can subject motorists to felony charges, depending on whether they were at fault, and whether the physical injuries sustained by a victim constitute “great bodily injury.” Because DUI injury charges are a “wobbler” in California, meaning they may be charged as either misdemeanors of felonies, there may be opportunities to reduce felony allegations to misdemeanors.
  • DUI Causing Death – DUI resulting in death is a felony in California, regardless of whether a motorist has been convicted of DUI in the past or not. Depending on the facts of the case, drivers may be charged with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated or gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. In some cases, prosecutors may choose to levy second-degree murder charges (or Watson murder) rather than manslaughter. This is often the case when drivers have been convicted of a DUI in the past, and have signed a “Watson Advisement” regarding their understanding that they can be charged with second-degree murder should they drive under the influence in the future and cause death.  Watson murder is the most serious DUI offense, and it poses a potential prison sentence of 15 years to life.

Felony DUI allegations are very serious charges. Though the facts of every case are unique, felony convictions in and of themselves can pose a number of severe and life-altering penalties. This includes not only lengthy prison sentences, multiple-year driver’s license suspensions, longer requirements for DUI education, and heftier fines, but also the many challenges and loss of civil rights that accompany criminal records with felony convictions. These include losing the right to vote, serve on a jury, and own a firearm, potential loss of a professional license, and difficulties with employment, housing, and other areas of life where background checks and criminal records are used to make excluding decisions.

Misdemeanor DUI: The levels of a “Standard” DUI

Though most DUIs in the state of California are prosecuted as misdemeanors, it does not mean these charges are insignificant or inconsequential. In fact, California law imposes what can be severe and far-reaching penalties for individuals facing charges for any first, second, and third DUI:

  • First DUI – A first DUI without any accident resulting in serious injury or death can result in misdemeanor convictions, up to 1 year in a county jail, fines and court-related fees, 3 to 9 months of DUI education courses, driver’s license suspension, installation of an ignition interlock device (IID), and informal probation for 3 to 5 years.
  • Second DUI – A second DUI conviction within 10 years of a prior conviction can elevate penalties significantly. This includes a minimum term of imprisonment in a county jail, larger fines, longer terms of DUI education, driver’s license suspension, probation (informal or formal), and IID installation.
  • Third DUI – A third DUI conviction within 10 years of two prior convictions increases penalties as well. Most significantly, it can elevate jail sentences to a minimum of 120 days to 1 year, and result in larger fines, more DUI education, longer terms for IID installation, and probation (informal or formal).

Although the base penalties for DUIs can increase with multiple DUIs, there are other ways penalties can be enhanced in misdemeanor cases. For example, state law outlines a number of aggravating factors and circumstances which can result in increased penalties:

  • High BAC – Drivers charged with DUI can face elevated penalties if their BAC levels are inordinately high. Typically, most counties in California implement penalty enhancements when a driver’s BAC is .15 or higher, and in some cases when the recorded BAC is .20 or higher.
  • Chemical Test Refusal – Under California’s law of implied consent, all motorists must submit to chemical testing of their breath, blood, or urine when asked by law enforcement with probable cause to suspect they are driving under the influence. While motorists can lawfully refuse the field sobriety tests and portable (PAS) breathalyzer tests administered by officers in the field, they cannot refuse a subsequent chemical test at a law enforcement station without incurring additional penalties, such as an automatic 1-year driver’s license suspension.
  • Child Passenger – If a suspect is arrested for DUI while driving a vehicle with a minor passenger under the age of 14, they can face increased penalties for child endangerment.
  • Accidents and Injuries – In many jurisdictions across California, the presence of accidents or injuries in a DUI case can prompt prosecutors to seek penalty enhancements, in addition to court-ordered restitution. Because DUI causing injury is considered a “wobbler,” meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, the charges you may face will depend on the facts of your case. Generally, defense attorneys work to keep or reduce charges as misdemeanors by focusing on the severity of the crash and alleged injuries, as well as your contribution of fault.
  • Driving on a Suspended License – Driving on a suspended license, and especially a license suspended for a previous DUI, is another way defendants may face penalty enhancements, including longer license suspension terms and more jail time.

The Importance of Working with Proven DUI Defense Attorneys

Premier Criminal Defense, LLC is led by Attorney Thomas Slattery, a former criminal prosecutor who leverages his insight into the “other side,” for the benefit of clients facing serious charges and life-altering penalties. With his background and the collective experience of our criminal defense attorneys, we fight for clients charged with both misdemeanor and felony DUIs, and work aggressively to pursue the best possible results on their behalves – whether that means charge and penalty reductions, dismissals, or sentencing alternatives.

If you have questions about a recent DUI arrest in San Diego, our firm is available 24/7 to help. Call (619) 304-9190 or contact us online for a no-cost and confidential consultation.