There are two classifications of criminal offenses: felonies and misdemeanors. The punishment for a misdemeanor cannot exceed one year in county jail. Punishment for a felony can exceed one year, including life in prison and the death penalty. Under most circumstances, driving under the influence (DUI) is a misdemeanor offense. Some criminal offenses are called "wobblers," meaning that the prosecutor can charge them as either a felony or misdemeanor. The maximum sentence for a first time DUI offense in California is six months in county jail. The maximum sentence for a second or third time DUI offense in California is one year.
However, there are three situations in which a DUI can be a felony and not a misdemeanor. The first is when a person has three prior DUI convictions and is charged with a fourth DUI within ten years of the offense date for the first DUI. The fourth DUI arrest will result in felony DUI charges being filed. That individual is now facing a maximum three year prison sentence rather than six months or one year in county jail.
Another situation when a DUI can be charged as a felony is when there is a vehicle accident and another person, either a passenger in the DUI driver's vehicle, a person in another vehicle, or a bicyclist or pedestrian, is injured or killed. DUI with injury is a "wobbler." The extent of the individual's injuries usually determines whether the charges are felonies. If the injuries are only minor, the prosecutor will usually elect to file the case as a misdemeanor. If the injuries are moderate to severe, felony DUI charges will be filed against the driver. In the unfortunate event that someone is killed in a DUI accident, the driver can be charged with vehicular manslaughter or, if they have a prior DUI conviction, second degree murder (also known as a "Watson" murder).
The final circumstance in which a DUI can be a felony is when a person has already received a felony DUI conviction and they get arrested for DUI within ten years of the offense date for the felony DUI. Even though the new DUI arrest may not have involved an accident, and nobody was injured or killed, nor is it a fourth offense within a ten year period, because of the prior felony DUI conviction on the person's record the new DUI case will be charged as a felony.
If you have been arrested and are facing DUI misdemeanor or felony charges, it is important that you understand your legal rights and the potential consequences that a DUI conviction can bring. Contact an experienced DUI lawyer immediately. Call our office today at (877) 667-1205 or submit the CONTACT form for a free consultation with Los Angeles DUI lawyer Robert D. Berglund.