DUI and DWAI are generally treated as traffic misdemeanor crimes in Colorado. But you can be charged with a felony if it is your 4th or more offense, or if you cause an accident in which another person is injured or killed.
Specifically, felony DUI is charged in 3 circumstances:
- You have three (3) prior convictions for DUI or DUI of drugs; or
- Your driving causes someone to suffer serious bodily injury – called vehicular assault (CRS 18-3-205); or
- You cause a fatal accident – called vehicular homicide (CRS 18-3-106)
1. Is a fourth DUI / DWAI a Class 4 Felony?
Yes, based on CRS 42-4-1301, the Colorado felony DUI statute. DUI is a class 4 felony if the driver has at least three prior DUI-related convictions. Here are key points to know about Colorado’s DUI “Four Strikes” Law:
- A fourth strike is still a felony even if the current incident caused no injuries.
- It is irrelevant how long ago the three prior convictions occurred. There is no “washout” period.
- It does not matter if the prior convictions happened in Colorado or other U.S states or territories. It also does not matter if these prior convictions had different legal names (such as DWI or OUI). Any prior DUI conviction within the U.S. counts as a strike.
- Juvenile DUI offenses usually do not count as prior convictions unless there is still a pending deferred judgment.
- Any type of drunk/drugged driving-related conviction qualifies as a prior offense, including DUI, DUI per se, DWAI, vehicular assault, or vehicular homicide. And it makes no difference if the three prior convictions were a combination of different DUI crimes or were all the same.
So a repeat offender with three prior DWAI convictions would still face felony charges for a fourth DWAI in Colorado.1 It makes no difference that DWAIs are the least serious DUI-related offense.
2. Is DUI with injury a felony?
Yes, depending on the injury. Under CRS 18-3-205, drunk or drugged driving is a class 4 felony offense if it causes someone else to sustain “serious bodily injuries.” It makes no difference if the driver has no prior convictions.
A “serious bodily injury” in DUI cases includes:
- serious permanent disfigurement;
- protracted loss or impairment of a bodily function or organ function;
- breaks/fractures; or
- second- or third-degree burns.2
Therefore, a minor bruise, a jammed finger, or a twisted ankle probably would not qualify as a “serious bodily injury.”
A DUI causing injury is typically referred to as “vehicular assault.” Under Colorado law, “vehicular assault” can also refer to situations where a person’s reckless driving causes an injury. Vehicular assault penalties are laxer if the incident involved no alcohol or drugs.3
3. Is DUI with death a felony?
Yes. Under CRS 18-3-106, driving a motor vehicle while impaired or under the influence is a class 3 felony if it causes someone else to die in an accident. As with vehicular assault, vehicular homicide is always a felony even if the driver has no prior convictions.
A DUI causing death is typically referred to as “vehicular homicide.” Under Colorado law, “vehicular homicide” can also refer to situations where a person’s reckless driving causes a fatality. Vehicular homicide penalties are laxer if the incident involved no alcohol or drugs.4
Note that a vehicular assault charge can be upgraded to vehicular homicide if the victim dies while the criminal case is pending.
4. What are the penalties for felony DUI?
It depends on the specific charge the alleged drunk driver gets convicted of:
Felony Drunk/Drugged Driving Conviction
Colorado Penalties for DUI offenders
|A fourth-time DUI, DUI per se, or DWAI under CRS 42-4-1301(1)(a) and (b)||Class 4 felony: |
If the judge grants probation, the sentence must include:
|DUI causing serious injury (vehicular assault under CRS 18-3-205(1)(b)(I))||Class 4 felony: |
|DUI causing death (vehicular homicide under CRS 18-3-106(1)(b)(I))||Class 3 felony: |
|*The judge may impose prison only if it determines that a prison sentence with the Department of Corrections is the most suitable option. Factors the court will consider include: |
|^The judge may impose a sentencing range of 4 to 12 years for this felony DUI conviction if there are extraordinary aggravating circumstances. This typically occurs when defendant was on parole, on probation, or on bond for another felony.|
Defendants released from prison are required to use an ignition interlock device in their cars during their parole.6
5. What are the defenses to felony DUI charges?
There are several ways to fight drunk/drugged driving charges depending on the facts of the case. Five common defenses include:
- The police had no probable cause to suspect DUI or DWAI in the first place;
- The police did not administer the field sobriety tests correctly;
- The breath test equipment or blood test equipment was defective or handled improperly;
- The defendant had a medical condition such as GERD that caused high blood alcohol content (BAC) results; or
- Rising blood alcohol caused a high BAC result
In four-strikes cases, the defense attorney can try to show that the defendant does not have three prior DUI-related convictions. Perhaps these prior cases were dismissed, reduced to non-DUI charges, or do not meet Colorado’s definition of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or while impaired.
And in vehicular assault or homicide cases, the defense attorney can try to argue that the defendant’s driving did not cause the injury or death. Perhaps there is surveillance video or eyewitnesses that could back up the defendant’s innocence. The defense attorney can even hire accident reconstruction experts to show how any injury was unrelated to the defendant’s driving.
The defense attorney’s goal is to raise a “reasonable doubt” about the defendant’s guilt. Ideally, the prosecutors will see that their evidence is too inadequate to sustain a conviction. The district attorney may be willing to dismiss the charge or reduce it to reckless or careless driving.
Arrested in California? See our article on California felony DUI laws.
Arrested in Nevada? See our article about Nevada felony DUI laws.
- Colorado Legislature House Bill 15-1043 (this is a relatively new law); CRS 42-4-1301(1)(a) and (b).
- CRS 18-1-901(2)(p).
- CRS 18-3-205(1)(b)(I).
- CRS 18-3-106(1)(b)(I).
- Colorado House Bill 17-1288.
- CRS 42-2-132.5. Prior to March 1, 2022, non-felony DUIs were misdemeanors rather than traffic misdemeanors. SB21-271.