Drunk driving is a grave criminal offense, but how serious? DUI offenses can be misdemeanors or felonies depending on the surrounding circumstances and many factors. Consider this your complete guide to DUI felonies versus DUI misdemeanors.
Keep reading to learn the answer to the questions when is a DUI a felony and what makes a DUI a felony, as well as the consequences of felony DUIs.
Definition of a DUI
DUI stands for driving under the influence and is a criminal offense if a driver operates a vehicle under the influence of any substance that can cause impairment, such as drugs and alcohol.
Concerning alcohol, there is a legal amount of alcohol a driver can consume before driving.
The blood alcohol content needed for a DUI charge can vary slightly from state to state, but a BAC of 0.08% is the legal limit. If a driver operates a vehicle with a BAC of 0.07, they cannot be charged with a DUI unless drugs are involved. A blood test, field sobriety test, or urine test can assess a driver’s level of impairment.
Are DUIs and DWIs the Same?
DUI stands for driving under the influence, while DWI stands for driving while intoxicated. In many states, these terms are interchangeable and refer to the same type of criminal offense.
However, some states do charge both types of offenses separately. In these states, DUIs refer to situations involving alcohol, while DWIs concern drug-related incidents. Generally, the consequences for DWIs and DUIs are very similar.
Are DUIs Felonies or Misdemeanors?
So, is DUI a misdemeanor or felony offense? The answer is both. Most DUI charges are misdemeanors, but several factors can lead to a DUI offense escalating to a felony charge.
The sections below will dive deeper into when a DUI becomes and felony and how, but the main takeaway is that without extenuating circumstances, a DUI is usually a misdemeanor.
What Makes a DUI a Felony?
Below are the scenarios that cause a DUI charge to be a felony, so keep reading for a comprehensive answer to the question: when is a DUI a felony?
Past DUI Offenses
One of the most common reasons a DUI charge becomes a felony is because the offender has committed this crime in the past. So if you’re facing your first DUI charge, it will likely be a misdemeanor. Same for the second offense. But after that, the consequences become more serious.
Third, fourth, fifth, and more DUI offenses will likely be charged as felony offenses because the driver has proved they have no intention of stopping their reckless behavior and continue to be a danger to society.
Injuries or Death
Many DUIs are charged as felonies if someone suffered a severe injury or death due to the driver’s intoxication. If a pedestrian, another driver, or passenger died in a collision with a drunk driver, the drunk driver would almost always receive a felony charge. What constitutes a serious injury can vary and may depend on the court’s opinion.
However, permanent injuries, such as disfigurement, paralysis, or loss of a limb, will always be categorized as severe and can make a DUI a felony. In addition, things like fractures, broken bones, and burns may or may not lead to a felony charge, depending on the severity. For example, a broken finger is not serious enough, but two broken legs may warrant a felony charge.
Blood Alcohol Content
As mentioned, most states have a legal BAC limit of 0.08%. Therefore, you’ll be charged with a DUI if your BAC is over 0.08% while driving. However, some states, such as Texas, take into account how high the driver’s BAC was when they were operating the vehicle.
In some states, a BAC of over 0.15% warrants an automatic felony charge. A BAC of 0.15% or higher is near twice the legal limit and shows that the driver behaved extremely recklessly, meriting a felony charge.
In many states, the consequences of a DUI charge will be more severe if a child is in the vehicle. Driving over the legal limit with someone under 18 in your vehicle is considered child endangerment and can be charged as such. Some states only issue child endangerment charges if the child is under 14 or 16.
Typically, the child endangerment charge is tacked onto the DUI offense, making both a felony. But on its own, a child endangerment charge may only be a misdemeanor. So instead, the combination of offenses can result in a felony charge.
This factor is less influential on DUI penalties than several years ago. In 2016, the US Supreme Court rules that authorities must obtain a warrant to order someone to take a blood or urine test. If they do not obtain a warrant, the offender can refuse the test without additional penalties.
However, this new rule does not apply to breathalyzers or field sobriety tests. Some states may impose harsher penalties if the defendant refuses these tests when pulled over, but it rarely results in a felony charge. However, to test refusal may result in more jail time or immediate license suspension.
Substantial property damage can raise your misdemeanor to DUI to a felony automatically. States have different monetary values that elevate a misdemeanor to a felony for property damage. In some states, it’s more than $5,000, while in others, it’s $20,000.
If the drunk driver damaged property exceeding the state’s requirement for a felony charge, the DUI will automatically be a felony, and they may also face more jail time. A drunk driver may total another vehicle or drive into a building, which is often when the property damage results in a felony charge.
Lastly, DUI charges can be felonies when the driver commits multiple offenses at once, including driving while drunk.
The child endangerment factor applies to this, as well as speeding, breaking traffic laws, driving without a license, or circumventing an ignition interlock device. If you break any other laws while driving under the influence, it’s easy for the charge to be escalated to a felony.
Misdemeanor DUI Vs. Felony DUI Consequences
You probably know a felony charge is worse than a misdemeanor charge, but how much worse? The penalties for any DUI charge will depend on the state where the driver committed the crime. But below is a general overview of the consequences of a misdemeanor DUI versus a felony DUI.
Misdemeanor DUI Consequences:
- Maximum jail time of one year
- Fines of up to $1,000
- Possible probation
Felony DUI Consequences:
- Minimum jail time of one year and usually up to six years
- Fines over $2,000 and up to $50,000
- Possible parole or probation
Contact Garret T. Rice for Help
Because drinking and driving are so dangerous, many prosecutors will work hard to make an example of offenders, looking for any opportunity to raise a DUI to a felony charge. If you’re facing a serious DUI charge, contact expert DUI criminal defense attorneys for help.
Garret T. Rice has years of experience with DUI cases and can help you put this incident behind you. Book a free consultation today to move past this and get your life back on track!