Driving under the influence can be charged as a felony in California in 3 situations:
- when the DUI is a 4th offense within a 10-year period,
- when the driver has a prior felony DUI conviction, or
- when the driver causes an accident in which another person sustains bodily injury or is killed.
In all other instances, driving under the influence of alcohol is a misdemeanor charge. As long as there were no aggravating factors, a motorist is charged with simple misdemeanor simple DUI when facing a first, second, or third time DUI case.
In this article, our California DUI attorneys will discuss in more depth the instances where DUI is a felony offense:
- 1. Your DUI caused injury or death to another
- 2. You have 3 or more prior DUI or “wet reckless” convictions within a ten-year period
- 3. You have at least one prior felony DUI conviction
∗It should be noted that numbers (1) and (2) above could potentially be charged as misdemeanor offenses at the discretion of the prosecutor. Because this is unlikely and rarely the case, this article exclusively deals with DUI offenses as felonies.
When another person suffers injury or death because you (1) drove under the influence, and (2) either committed an additional vehicle code violation or drove in an otherwise negligent manner, California prosecutors can bring criminal charges for felony DUI in one of three ways:
- Under California Vehicle Code 23513 VC – driving under the influence causing serious injury,
- Under Penal Code 191.5(a) – gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated or Penal Code 191.5(b) – vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated,
- With DUI second-degree murder (otherwise known as a “Watson Murder”)
Which felony charge prosecutors will bring depends on the specific facts of your case and on your criminal history.
In California, driving under the influence is what’s known as a “priorable” offense. Priorable offenses have stiffer penalties and sentences every time you are convicted for another same or similar offense.
If you have suffered three or more prior DUI convictions within the last ten years, and suffer another DUI arrest, you will likely now be charged with a felony DUI in California. With respect to drunk driving, prior offenses include any combination of the following:
- A California conviction of driving under the influence,
- A California “wet reckless” conviction, or
- An out-of-state conviction that — if committed in California — would be equivalent to a DUI.
If you commit any DUI – even “simple” misdemeanor drunk driving with no aggravated circumstances – and you have at least one prior felony drunk driving case, you will be charged with a felony. This situation would likely arise if you suffer a DUI conviction and your prior drunk driving conviction (1) caused injury or death and was charged as a felony, or (2) was charged as a felony because you had multiple DUI convictions (even though your current drunk driving case took place after the ten-year timeframe elapsed).
Fighting a Felony Drunk Driving Case
A California felony conviction has severe penalties including a substantial California State Prison sentence, heavy fines, and a suspended license for several years. After a first-time conviction of felony drunk driving causing injury, it may be possible to still drive as long as an ignition interlock device is installed in the car. (California Senate Bill 1046 (2018))
As Karthik Krishnan, a top Ventura DUI attorney, puts it:
A conviction for felony drunk driving is devastating since it carries a prison term (as opposed to jail time) and looks bad on your criminal record. Beating a charge requires an aggressive DUI defense attorney — and who therefore knows how to successfully employ the most effective defenses. We may be able to show that the police did not administer the field sobriety tests correctly or that the breathalyzer returned a false blood alcohol concentration (BAC) above the legal limit.
Our DUI lawyers have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
For information about Nevada law, go to our page on Nevada felony drunk driving law.