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When Is a DUI a Felony?

Drunk driving arrests are one of the most common causes of arrest among the average Californian. In most cases, a drunk driving conviction will result in a misdemeanor criminal charge on your record and, may not even require any time in jail. However, some drunk driving charges are taken much more seriously and could result in felony charges. 

If you are charged with misdemeanor DUI, it is important to take action as soon as possible to try and save your license and avoid a criminal record. If you are charged with a felony, getting criminal defense help is even more important because you could be labeled a felon and face years in prison. 

When Is a DUI Charged as a Felony?

There are a few different ways a DUI can be charged as a felony, including getting too many drunk driving convictions within a certain period of years, or causing a serious injury or death while intoxicated. The 4 primary types of felony DUIs include: 

  • Multiple DUIs (4th DUI or more)
  • DUI after a prior DUI
  • Bodily injury DUI
  • Fatal DUI

Multiple DUIs (4th DUI Felony)

Like most states, California makes it a felony to get too many DUIs within a certain number of years. For California drivers, a 4th DUI within a 10-year lookback period is prosecuted as a felony. This includes any DUIs in other states that would have counted as a DUI if they had occurred in California. 

For the basis of counting prior DUIs, a “wet reckless” counts as a priorable offense. A wet-reckless is a plea bargain down from a DUI that has lesser penalties. For example, if in the past 10 years, you had one wet-reckless and one DUI in California and one DWI in New Mexico, another California DUI could be charged as a felony. 

The penalties for a 4th DUI are also increased over a 3rd DUI. The penalties for a felony multiple DUI conviction include: 

  • 16 months to 3 years in prison
  • Fine of up to $1,000
  • License suspension for up to 5 years
  • DUI driving school for 18 to 30 months

DUI After a Prior Felony DUI

In general, after you get a felony DUI for any reason in California (injury DUI or 4th DUI), another DUI in the future could be a felony. Even if the next DUI is not within 10-years of the prior felony offense, if you were previously convicted of a felony DUI, the next DUI will generally be a felony as well, complete with all the penalties involved. 

Bodily Injury Drunk Driving Accident

Under California Vehicle Code Section 23153, a DUI that causes bodily injury can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. An injury DUI involves a drunk driver who “proximately causes bodily injury to any person other than the driver.” This could involve injuring another driver, pedestrian, cyclist, or even your own passenger. If the impaired driver only injures themselves, it would not count as a bodily injury DUI.

A bodily injury DUI is known as a “wobbler.” A wobbler is a criminal offense that could be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case. There are several factors that could sway the prosecutor and judge to charge the offense as a lesser charge in a drunk driving accident. These factors may include: 

  • Expression of remorse
  • Seeking substance abuse treatment
  • Extent of injuries caused
  • Prior drunk driving offenses
  • Strength of the evidence against the defendant
  • Age of defendant
  • Cooperation with police

If you were involved in a bodily injury DUI, talk to your East Bay criminal defense lawyer about having your charges reduced to avoid the most serious felony penalties. 

Fatal Drunk Driving Crash

If a drunk driving crash results in death, the impaired driver could face vehicular manslaughter or second-degree murder charges. Under California Penal Code Section 191.5, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought, in the driving of a vehicle, where the driver was impaired. Gross negligence in a drunk driving fatality can be charged as gross vehicular manslaughter. 

The penalties for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated include imprisonment in the state prison for 4, 6, or 10 years. Vehicular manslaughter is punishable by up to 4 years in prison. This is in addition to fines, license suspension, DUI school, and other penalties. 

Watson Murder

A fatal drunk driving accident can result in murder charges, known as a “Watson murder.” Murder charges generally require some “malice aforethought.” However, malice aforethought can be implied in certain cases where the driver was given a Watson advisement. The Watson advisement is given to most drivers after a prior DUI. The warning advises the driver that drunk driving is dangerous to human life and the driver must acknowledge that if they kill someone in a future DUI, they can face murder charges. A conviction for Watson murder DUI can result in 15 years to life in prison. 

Collateral Consequences of a Felony Conviction

A felony involves more than just harsher penalties. There are long-term consequences of a felony conviction on your record. A felon may have some of their basic rights impacted and have severe limitations on their future. After a felony conviction, the individual may find it harder to get a job, find housing, and get public benefits. A simple background check can show any prior felony arrests and convictions, and could be a significant barrier to your future opportunities. A felony may also prohibit your right to own a firearm. 

Consult with the Top East Bay DUI Attorney

You have to take felony criminal charges seriously. You have legal rights after an arrest for a DUI in California. East Bay attorney Lynn Gorelick has more than 38 years of DUI experience and understands the consequences of a felony DUI arrest. Representing drivers and visitors in Contra Costa and Alameda County, Lynn Gorelick is familiar with the local DUI laws, and the local officers and prosecutors involved. Contact East Bay DUI lawyer Lynn Gorelick today.

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