When Can a DUI Lead to a More Serious Charge?
Most DUIs in California are misdemeanor charges that can carry jail time, probation, fines, penalties, license suspension or restrictions, and many other consequences. However, there are situations where a DUI can lead to more severe charges, such as a felony.
California state law treats drinking and driving very seriously. The consequences of a DUI conviction get more significant with each subsequent drunk driving conviction within a ten-year period. If you have three or more prior DUIs, one or more felony DUI convictions in ten years, or someone was hurt or killed as a result of you driving under the influence, you can expect to face more serious charges.
Circumstances Leading to a DUI Charge
Most DUI charges start with law enforcement pulling over a person suspected of driving under the influence. California law prohibits anyone from driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or with a blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) of .08% or more. Similar laws also prohibit riding bikes, scooters, and boats while intoxicated.
Is A DUI In California A Felony?
A DUI in California is not a felony in most circumstances, but rather a misdemeanor. However, if one of the three previously mentioned circumstances is present, a DUI can be prosecuted as a felony. This can lead to serious consequences, including time in prison.
How Long Can You Stay in Jail for a DUI in California?
The likelihood and length of potential jail time for a DUI in California will depend on several factors, including whether the incident is being treated as a misdemeanor DUI or felony DUI.
For a first offense misdemeanor, you could receive up to 6 months jail time, 3-5 years of probation, a suspended or restricted driver’s license, fines and monetary penalties, be required to carry special insurance, be mandated to attend DUI school, and install an ignition interlock device on your car.
For a second misdemeanor DUI conviction, you could receive between 96 hours to 1 year in jail time, in addition to the items listed above. Some counties may have alternatives to jail, such as a sheriff’s work program or home detention.
A third-time misdemeanor DUI conviction can lead to anywhere between 120 days-1 year in jail. There is a one-month mandatory jail time requirement, and every county handles the minimum time differently.
You can be charged with either a misdemeanor or felony DUI for any fourth or subsequent offenses. Despite this, at this point a prosecutor will likely seek felony charges against you. As long as no injuries or deaths result from driving under the influence, you will face jail time of up to three years.
How Likely Is Jail Time for a First DUI in California?
Jail time is not always guaranteed for a first offense. A prosecutor may be more willing to offer a reduced charge for a person’s first offense. However, there are minimum and maximum sentencing guidelines for a first-time DUI. That being said, each county will handle minimum and maximum sentencing guidelines differently. Some counties offer alternatives to jail time, such as local work programs, home monitoring options, and the ability to break up a jail sentence into multiple sessions.
Depending on your circumstances, a California DUI attorney may be able to get your charge lessened to a “wet reckless” charge. There are significant advantages to getting this charge over a DUI. The first is shorter jail time. A first-time DUI offender could get up to six months in jail, and repeat offenders could get up to a year. However, the maximum possible jail time for a “wet reckless” charge is 90 days.
DUI Punishments and Penalties
When charged with a DUI, some of the possible consequences include paying fines and penalty assessments, being subjected to multiple years of probation, and being required to attend a “DUI school” for a certain amount of time. Other possibilities include license suspension or restrictions on driving purposes, such as only being allowed to drive when going to work. You may also be required to pay for an ignition interlock device to be installed on your car, which also requires special insurance.
Penalties plus court assessments can range anywhere from $2,000-$10,000. Depending on your number of prior convictions and whether there are any aggravating circumstances in your case, you may also be faced with restitution costs. If you are worried about possible fees and costs you will have to pay for your DUI charge, reach out to one of our California DUI lawyers today.
If you can lessen your charge to a “wet reckless,” fines are also much lower. The most you could be required to pay is $1,000, while a DUI will likely result in a fine and assessments of several thousand dollars. There is also no mandatory license suspension with wet reckless charges. In contrast, a DUI can carry a 6-month compulsory suspension for a first-time offense and a year or more for repeat offenses.
Is a DUI a Felony or a Misdemeanor?
A DUI can be either a misdemeanor or felony. Whether this is your first, second, third, or fourth DUI in the last 10 years will also affect this determination. Additionally, whether anyone was injured—either fatally, or only slightly—and whether there are aggravating circumstances that “enhance” the severity of your case will impact this determination.
When Is a DUI a Misdemeanor?
Most people charged with a DUI are usually looking at a misdemeanor charge. If you have had no more than three prior convictions in the past 10 years and no one has been injured or killed, chances are high that you will not be charged with anything other than a misdemeanor. However, it is important to remember that each case is different.
4 Ways a DUI Can Become a Felony
A DUI can lead to felony charges in the following circumstances:
- You have three or more DUIs in a 10-year period;
- You have previously been convicted of felony DUI;
- A DUI accident you were involved in resulted in someone’s death; or
- A DUI accident you were involved in resulted in injury to someone else.
Driver’s License Suspension and Ignition Interlocks
In California, there are two kinds of license suspensions for drunk driving. One occurs through the DMV and one through the courts. The DMV’s license suspension will likely happen before your court case concludes.
When you are initially pulled over and arrested for a DUI, the police notify the DMV, and the DMV suspends your license. You then have approximately ten days to attend an administrative hearing regarding your license. The DMV can suspend your license for four months or longer, even if you are not convicted in court. You may be able to obtain a restricted license so you can go to work, go to medical treatments, and so forth.
If you are ultimately convicted of any DUI charge, your license gets suspended by the court as part of the penalties. The court informs the DMV of the conviction, and then the DMV handles the rest. You cannot appeal this suspension. The length of your court-determined suspension will largely depend on whether you are a first-time offender, a serial offender, or if there are aggravating circumstances.
You may also have to pay for an ignition interlock device installed on your car. The DMV has an ignition interlock device program that requires all repeat or injury-causing offenders to install this device on their vehicle for anywhere between one to four years. First-time offenders may have a court-ordered device for up six months after conviction.
An ignition interlock device is a small device wired to your vehicle’s ignition. To start your car, you must breathe into the machine. The vehicle will not start if any alcohol is detected. The device will also require you to provide breath samples during your drive to ensure there is no alcohol in your system.
Alternative Forms of Punishment
Although all California DUIs include minimum jail sentences, many people convicted of a DUI will never see a jail cell. Judges realize that many DUI offenders are not violent criminals and will not benefit from being locked up. California law allows judges to offer alternative sentences if they believe the circumstances warrant it.
If you are given an alternative sentence, you can fulfill another requirement—such as attending a DUI program—instead of serving jail time. Your jail sentence will be stayed conditioned on you completing the alternative sentence. If you complete it as directed by the court, you do not have to serve jail time. However, if you do not follow through, you will be back in court, and the judge will likely send you to jail.
The most common alternative forms of punishment to receive in lieu of jail time in California are:
- Alcohol or drug treatment programs, including rehab, twelve-step programs, and sober living homes;
- DUI deterrent programs;
- Community service;
- Roadside work;
- Work furlough—working during the day and spending the night in a monitored setting that is not a jail; and
- House arrest.
A person will be more likely to be offered an alternative sentence where it is their first offense, their blood alcohol content was close to the legal limit, they have expressed genuine remorse for their actions, they have legal counsel, or they have taken proactive steps such as enrolling in a treatment program.
What Leads to an “Aggravated” DUI?
There are certain factors that, if present in your case, can increase your jail or prison sentence. These aggravating factors will also increase your penalties, regardless of whether you have any prior alcohol-related offenses on your record. Common examples include:
- Having a blood alcohol content of 0.15% or more;
- Refusing a breath test or urine test;
- Driving at high speeds;
- Child endangerment by virtue of driving under the influence with a child under the age of 14 in the car; and
- If you are under age 21 at the time of the DUI.
California Felony DUI Sentencing Guidelines
The sentencing guidelines for a felony DUI are much more consequential than for a misdemeanor DUI. For a first-offense felony DUI where there is an injury or death, you may look at anywhere from 16 months to 16 years in state prison. For any other felony DUI, you may look at anywhere from 16 months to 2 years or 3 years in state prison.
Can You Be Charged with a Felony if You Have No Prior DUI Convictions?
Yes, you can be charged with a felony DUI conviction even if you have no prior convictions. This can occur when intoxicated driving results in injury to another or, worse, someone’s death.
If you injured another person while driving under the influence, you could be charged under California Vehicle Code section 23153 (a) and or (b). If the injuries are minor, you may only be charged with a misdemeanor DUI. However, if your actions resulted in great bodily injury, a prosecutor will likely be seeking to charge you with a felony DUI. This is true even if it is your first offense.
If your actions resulted in someone’s death, you could be charged with gross vehicular manslaughter. A prosecutor will have to show you acted with gross negligence for you to be charged with a felony. If they cannot show this, then you would be looking at a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge.
If you are charged with gross vehicular manslaughter as a felony, you are potentially looking at:
- Felony probation;
- State prison time;
- Fines, penalties and restitution; and
- Other consequences.
If you are faced with this situation or have upcoming court dates, you should seek the advice and counsel of an attorney as soon as possible.
Talk To A DUI Defense Attorney
You may have defenses to felony charges or may be able to get them reduced to a misdemeanor or “wet reckless” charges. An experienced attorney can evaluate your case and discuss your options with you. A lawyer serving DUI clients will often offer a free no obligation consultation and everything discussed is protected by the attorney client relationship.
Schedule a free consultation with one of our expert California DUI attorneys here.
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