Have you ever been pulled over for drunk driving or driving under the influence? It can be scary if you have no idea what your state laws are for such an offense. One example of an oft-repeated question is whether a DUI (or DWI – driving while intoxicated) is a misdemeanor or a felony. When does a DUI charge become a felony?
While each state has its statutes for DUI charges, it is common knowledge that drunk driving is a misdemeanor or a traffic violation. However, authorities refer to drunk driving as driving while intoxicated by alcohol while there are different categories for DUI, mostly factors that impede or affect the driver’s motor skills. A DUI defense specialist knows this stuff, so if you’re looking at a DUI charge, you should hire one right away.
If charged with a misdemeanor, you’ll serve jail time, but the sentence and punishment are lighter than that of a felony. On the other hand, getting accused of a felony means you’ll spend time in state prison for over a year. It helps if you have a bit of background information on what constitutes a DUI misdemeanor and when it becomes a felony. Here are the factors used to determine the charge type.
A High Blood Alcohol Level
When authorities pull over a driver suspected of DUI, one thing they do is check on the person’s blood alcohol concentration or BAC. The numbers vary per state, but the standard minimum level is .08%. Once the driver’s BAC reflects a higher level, such as 0.12%, the DUI charge is a felony.
Injury or Bodily Harm/Vehicular Manslaughter
If a driver caught driving under the influence caused injury or bodily harm, and if the act killed someone, then authorities will file a DUI felony charge against the driver. It is crucial to determine if it was the driver who caused the injury, accident, or death. Most states follow this ruling for vehicular manslaughter.
Another scenario that can result in a felony conviction is running through a red light and hitting another vehicle where the passengers sustain injuries.
In cases like this, the driver’s license is usually revoked, suspended, or restricted.
Previous DUI Convictions
In terms of drivers with previous DUI convictions, states have different justifications and laws. Some states look at convictions that took place within the past ten years, others assign enhanced sentences to prior convictions within the last five years, and several states convict repeat offenders regardless of how long ago the previous arrest happened.
If a Child is in the Vehicle
Drivers caught driving under the influence and carrying a child or minor under 18 years of age will receive enhanced sentences in most states. Some states have different age cut-offs, but the common regulation does not excuse anyone even if the child in the vehicle is theirs.
Driver Refuses to Take a Breath Test
Most states impose higher penalties on drivers caught driving under the influence but refused to take a breath test. The punishment varies from state-to-state; some revoke the driver’s license while others require offenders to spend time in jail. Generally, however, drivers who get caught are given harsher penalties.
If an arrested driver refuses to take a urine or blood test, he or she can only get enhanced sentencing if authorities present a warrant.
Driving While License is Suspended, Restricted, or Revoked
Drivers with suspended licenses are not legally allowed to drive. So, when caught driving under the influence while their license is suspended – or even if it’s just restricted or revoked, they are charged with a felony depending on which state they are in.
When There is Property Damage
A misdemeanor is elevated to greater penalties when the driver under the influence wrecks the vehicle he or she is driving. The stakes are even higher if the driver does not have car insurance, which is a major requirement in most states.
DUI laws and penalties differ from state-to-state, and some cases require court intervention, so sentences are imposed on a case to case basis. Drivers convicted of a felony DUI will:
- Go to prison – sentences are different in each state, but the length of time is usually more than a year; some even mete out a term of seven years or more
- Pay fines – the courts determine the amount
- Temporarily or permanently lose driving privileges
- Go on probation – convicted drivers undergo counseling, submit to alcohol and drug tests, stay employed and refrain from committing any criminal offense
- Lose visitation rights and custody if the child was in the vehicle when the driver was arrested
- Use a monitoring device – the most common one being a breath alcohol ignition interlock device
- Lose civil rights – such as the right to vote
There are also cases where the arrested driver is required by the authorities or the courts or state to join an alcohol education or treatment program.
To get more information about DUI misdemeanors and felonies, consult with your lawyer or legal adviser.