While most California motorists caught driving while impaired by alcohol and/or drugs are charged with a misdemeanor DUI, there are three situations which potentially elevate DUI to felony status.
As you might imagine, penalties for a felony DUI conviction are severe, including the possibility of three to six years of jail time.
While most DUIs in California are charged as misdemeanors, there are three situations which potentially elevate this offense to felony status. A DUI may be charged as a felony at the prosecution’s discretion if:
The DUI caused great bodily injury or death to another person.
The defendant had three or more prior DUIs—or wet recklessconvictions—within the preceding 10 years.
The defendant has at least one prior felony DUI conviction.
Felony DUI – causing injury or death
If a person drove under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs and caused great bodily injury or death to another person, the driver can be charged with felony DUI. The relevant statutes include:
California 23153 VC – DUI causing injury
California 191.5 PC – Vehicular manslaughter
California 190(a) PC – DUI second-degree murder (also known as a “Watson murder”)
Felony DUI – multiple DUI convictions
A second way a defendant may qualify for a felony DUI is by accumulating three or more prior DUI (or equivalent) convictions within the previous ten years. Because a DUI is a priorable offense – which means increasingly severe penalties apply for each subsequent conviction – three or more previous DUIs will almost always result in a felony charge for any additional DUI.
Under the law, a qualifying prior conviction includes:
A DUI or wet reckless.
An out-of-state conviction for an offense which would be equivalent to a DUI if committed within California.
Felony DUI – prior felony DUI
The final circumstance that may trigger a felony DUI charge is the commission of any DUI offense by a person who has been previously convicted of felony DUI.
Felony DUI penalties are severe, as specified by California Vehicle Code 23554. Possible sanctions include, but are not limited to:
Jail time; three to seven years, depending on the number of injured victims, if any. If a death occurred, a manslaughter or Watson murder conviction can result in correspondingly longer periods of incarceration.
Fines of up to $5,000. With other penalties and assessments, the out-of-pocket costs can easily exceed $10,000. This figure does not include victim restitution or attorney’s fees.
Driver’s license suspension or revocation; loss of driving privileges for a period ranging from one to five years.
DUI school; mandatory completion of a state-approved DUI education program, lasting from 18 to 30 months.
Ignition interlock device (IID); after driving privileges are restored, the defendant is restricted to operating a vehicle equipped with an interlock device, which requires an alcohol-free breath sample in order to start the vehicle.