The lowest level of DUI is a misdemeanor, and most first-time DUIs are charged that way. However, there are certain circumstances that can turn a misdemeanor DUI into a felony.
Whether you get charged with a misdemeanor or felony can greatly affect your punishment. Felonies are considered much more serious crimes and can result in more than a year in prison and hefty fines. On the other hand, misdemeanors usually result in less than a year in jail and potentially lesser fines.
Drunken-driving laws vary by state, but in general, here are three ways that a misdemeanor DUI can become a felony:
- The DUI causes injury or death. In some states, a DUI or DWI charge becomes a felony if the intoxicated driver causes bodily harm or death to another person. For example, under California law, prosecutors can elevate a misdemeanor DUI to a felony if the intoxicated driver kills someone in a crash (otherwise known as vehicular manslaughter).
- Driver's license issues. Another way a misdemeanor DUI can become a felony is if it occurs while the driver has a suspended, restricted, or revoked license. For example, in Illinois, committing a drunken-driving offense when you already have your license suspended for whatever reason can become a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
- Prior DUI/DWI convictions. Habitual drunken-driving offenders can also face felony charges if they're caught drinking and driving again, within a certain time frame. For example, in New York, first-time offenders can face up to one year in jail for a misdemeanor DWI. However, if you get a second DWI conviction within 10 years, you can be charged with a felony DWI and incarcerated for up to four years in prison if convicted.
Depending on your state's laws, there could be other ways in which your misdemeanor DUI becomes a felony. And there are other factors -- like whether you were convicted of DUI as a juvenile or whether your DUI conviction was expunged -- that can also affect the outcome of your case.
That's why, if you're facing a drunken-driving charge, it's best to consult an experienced DUI attorney in your area as soon as possible.
- Lawmakers face long odds in expanding felony DUI definition (The Seattle Times)
- DUI Habitual Offenders: What Are the Consequences? (FindLaw's Blotter)
- What Is a DUI Causing Injury in Arizona? (FindLaw's Phoenix DUI Blog)
- At DUI Checkpoints, Are Drug Swabs Legal? (FindLaw's Blotter)