When is a DUI a felony? California’s law regarding felony DUI:
Felony DUI is a serious charge, with length state prison sentences for those convicted. Most DUI cases are treated as misdemeanors, not felonies. Misdemeanor DUI cases involve county jail terms of no more than 1 year, whereas felony DUI cases can involve 4 or more years in state prison. In California, a felony DUI that is the result of an accident with great bodily injury is treated as a violent strike felony; a qualifying offense for the state’s harsh “Three Strikes” law.
In California, there are two ways that a DUI can be treated as a felony: DUI cases involving an accident that causes great bodily injury to someone, or a qualifying offense based on the defendant’s prior record.
Felony DUI involving Great Bodily Injury:
Where an accident, involving great bodily injury occurs, a DUI cases can be elevated from misdemeanor to felony. The key factor in Felony DUI cases involving injury to another party is the level of injury sustained by the other party. If there is “great bodily injury,” a felony DUI can be charged. Great bodily injury involves severe injury that is likely to cause permanent damage to the victim. Examples include:
-punctured eye balls or damaged eye sockets
Minor whiplash, minor scrapes or bruises do not qualify for great bodily injury. Soft tissue damage can only qualify if the injuries are sufficient to cause permanent damage to the victim.
The accident has to be shown to be the cause of a vehicle code violation on the part of the defendant that resulted in the accident. It is not enough for the prosecution to simply show an accident occurred: there has to be a direct causal link between the defendant’s impaired condition due to alcohol and drugs and the accident.
Prior Felony DUI’s: Any subsequent DUI within 10 years will be treated as a Felony.
Under California law, if a person has a prior felony DUI, any subsequent DUI will be treated as a felony; regardless of the circumstances in the new case. The new case could be a simple DUI case involving innocuous driving and no accident, with a fully cooperative defendant who does everything law enforcement asks them to do. Regardless, because of the prior felony DUI the new DUI will be treated as a felony.
4th DUI: A driver with a fourth DUI will be charged with felony.
Aside from serious injury cases, or cases where the driver had a prior felony within 10 years, California law treats a fourth or subsequent DUI as a felony. Again, even if there is no accident, a cooperative defendant and an otherwise “minor” DUI, the fact that the driver has had 3 prior DUI’s means the driver will face a felony charge in their fourth or subsequent DUI.
Felony DUI Useful Links:
Felony: What makes a criminal act a felony?
DUI Criminal Cases vs DMV Hearings: The California DMV has provided information about the differences between a criminal court and a DMV hearing.
California Highway Patrol: CHP’s DUI public awareness information regarding DUIs, the dangers posed by DUI, DUI enforcement and DUI penalties.