In California, any conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) has the potential to result in jail time, fines, and a suspended driver's license. This is in addition to the harm a conviction can do to your reputation. Not all DUI charges equal, however. Under certain circumstances, your DUI arrest could be treated as a felony.
The penalties for a felony DUI are much steeper than a misdemeanor offense. Instead of facing days in jail or potentially no time behind bars at all, a felony conviction could lead to a lengthy stay in state prison.
Thankfully, you are entitled to defend yourself against felony DUI allegations. If you prevail at trial, you could avoid any consequences or penalties entirely. Let attorney Vitaly Sigal guide you through the criminal justice process.
When DUIs are Felonies in California
A DUI is inherently a misdemeanor offense under California law unless it meets one of three specific criteria. A prosecutor must prove one of these three so-called “aggravating factors” is present to convert your DUI to a felony offense. These aggravating factors are:
- Multiple prior convictions for misdemeanor DUI
- One prior felony DUI conviction
- DUI accidents resulting in injury or death
Multiple DUI Convictions
Most states treat repeat DUI offenders more harshly than those facing arrest for the first time. While all states treat a DUI offense as a felony after a specific number of prior convictions, the exact rules differ across jurisdictions. In California, a person with three prior DUI convictions will face felony charges on their net offense. This is true whether the prior offenses occurred in California or in a different state.
Not every prior DUI conviction is treated equally when it comes to enhancing a charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. To count as a prior offense, it must have occurred within the ten years prior to the most recent arrest. This ten-year window is known as the “lookback” period.
If a DUI conviction occurred more than ten years ago, it will not be treated as a prior offense. Some states – including Texas – do not have a look back period and count all prior convictions. In California, the state is lenient for misdemeanor offenses that resulted long ago.
It is important to note that any conviction that is functionally the same as a DUI will count as a prior offense. Some states, including California, allow defendants to plead to a lesser DUI-related charge known as “wet reckless.” Any offense that begins as a DUI but is negotiated to a lesser charge is treated as a conviction under state law.
Prior Felony DUI Conviction
There is a second way your criminal history could result in a felony DUI offense. If you have been previously convicted of a DUI-related felony, any future DUI offenses will also be treated as felonies. This option will only come into play in limited scenarios.
One common example is when a person has four or more DUI convictions over the course of their life. Years later when most of those prior offenses have rolled off of the lookback period, a new DUI charge will still be a felony offense.
The second example is when a person was previously convicted of a felony DUI due to causing death or serious bodily harm. In either situation, all future DUI offenses are treated as felonies.
DUI Causing Serious Injury or Death
The third way a DUI could be treated as a felony is if the offense involves the serious injury or death of another person. This is true even for a driver's first offense. Typically, this type of felony occurs when a driver causes a fatal accident while intoxicated.
Being intoxicated at the time another person is killed or injured is not enough to meet this standard. A driver must not only be intoxicated, but they must also have committed an act of negligence while driving. This could be anything from speeding or running a red light.
If convicted, a felony DUI carries serious penalties. These penalties include both statutory punishment like jail time as well as other collateral consequences that come with a conviction.
A felony DUI conviction carries a prison term of 16 months, two years, or three years. The default sentence is two years, but the court can consider aggravating and mitigating factors that would raise or lower this sentence. A conviction also carries as much as a $1,000 fine. What's more, you could also lose your driving privileges for as much as four years.
The collateral consequences that come with a conviction are not written in a statute, but they are real. These consequences include:
- Losing the right to vote or own firearms
- Difficulty obtaining housing
- Difficulty finding employment
- Loss of security clearance
- Suspension of professional licenses
Every criminal offense has potential defenses, and DUI is no exception. The viable defenses in a DUI case generally fall into two categories: challenges to the stop, and challenges to the test.
Most DUI cases begin with a traffic stop. The police do not have free reign to stop every car they see, however. If the police stop a driver without probable cause to believe they have committed a crime, any evidence they obtain could be excluded from trial.
The second common type of DUI defense involves challenging the results of a breath, blood, or urine test. These tests are seen as powerful evidence of intoxication when they result in a high blood alcohol concentration. That said, errors in testing or obtaining the sample could render these results meaningless. An error during the test could allow a defense attorney to exclude the test results at trial.
How a Los Angeles DUI Defense Attorney Could Help
From understanding what is at stake to developing a winning trial strategy, your attorney could play a major role in your case. To ensure you get the best defense possible, it is vital to seek out experienced legal counsel. Contact the Sigal Law Group right away to discuss your case with an experienced Los Angeles felony DUI attorney.