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Dec 11, 2018

Is DUI a Felony?

If you, a family member, or a friend has been arrested for driving under the influence in California, you may be asking yourself, “Is DUI a felony?” The short answer is, “It depends.” Whether a DUI is charged as a misdemeanor or felony depends upon a number of factors. The bottom line, though, is that if you or someone you love has been charged with a DUI in Alameda County, it’s imperative to call an Oakland DUI lawyer. A DUI attorney in Alameda County will be able to outline what you can expect, help you understand your options, and guide you towards the best possible outcome.


What is a DUI?

Most people think that DUI charges arise when a person consumes alcohol and then gets behind the wheel of a car. In California, driving under the influence misdemeanor or felony charges can also be brought when someone is under the influence of drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol. It’s important to note that “driving under the influence of drugs” can mean either illegal or legal drugs. For example, if you take a prescription drug that results in impairment and you get behind the wheel, you can be charged with a DUI. Likewise, if you smoke or ingest marijuana and drive while impaired, you can be arrested for driving under the influence.

It’s fairly well-known that, in California, a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or more constitutes driving under the influence. However, the standards are much stricter for drivers of commercial vehicles. For example, if you’re driving an 18-wheeler, you’re considered to be driving under the influence if your blood alcohol content is .04. A law that went into effect in July 2018 extended the .04 limit to a much broader range of drivers. Under the new law, Uber and Lyft drivers – or any driver who has a paying passenger riding in their vehicle – can be charged with a DUI when they have a BAC of .04 or more.

For drivers under the age of 21 or those who are on probation for a DUI conviction, a blood alcohol content of .01 is considered over the legal limit and driving under the influence.

A little-known aspect of the law is that a driver can be charged with a DUI if their blood alcohol content is over the limit either when they’re pulled over or within three hours. In other words, a driver who had a few shots and immediately hopped in the car can’t use the defense that the alcohol hadn’t yet entered their bloodstream.

While it’s intuitive to think about driving under the influence in association with paved streets and freeways, California law specifies that it is illegal to drive off-road vehicles while under the influence. The state’s DUI laws also apply to those operating boats, water skis, or aquaplanes – and even to those riding bicycles on public roads.


California DUI Felony and Misdemeanor Charges and Penalties

Circling back to the question, “Is DUI a felony?,” the answer largely depends upon your prior record and the circumstances surrounding your arrest. Typically, someone faces misdemeanor DUI charges when they’re pulled over or stopped at a checkpoint. Drivers can accumulate up to three misdemeanor convictions of driving under the influence. Subsequent arrests will result in felony DUI charges.

When you’re arrested on DUI charges, the arresting officer immediately suspends your driver’s license for 30 days. A first-time misdemeanor DUI conviction can mean a six-month suspension of your license, although you can ask for a restricted license that will allow you to commute to work or school. While a judge can impose 48 hours to six months in jail, most often first-time convictions result in probation of between three and five years. In order to meet probation obligations, you will probably be required to attend either a 30-hour or a 60-hour DUI education program. The length of the program depends upon your blood alcohol content when you were arrested. A first-time DUI misdemeanor conviction also carries significant fines – between $390 and $1,000 – plus “penalty assessments,” which can run between about $1,500 and $2,500. In Alameda County, once your driver’s license is reinstated, you’ll likely be required to install a device on your car called an ignition interlock device (IID). The IID is, essentially, a breathalyzer that prevents you from starting the car if you’ve been drinking. For your first conviction, you’ll likely be required to keep the IID for five months.

If you’re convicted of driving under the influence for a second time, the financial fines and penalties remain the same, but the other punishments increase. You can face up to one year in jail, although alternative sentencing – such as work programs and house arrest – can be negotiated by your attorney. Your driver’s license will be suspended for two years, although you can apply for a restricted license after 90 days (if the offense is alcohol-related) or one year (if the offense is drug-related). If you’re granted probation, a longer DUI education program – typically 18 months or 30 months – can be mandated. And, again, in Alameda County, your car must have an IID – but this time, it needs to stay on the vehicle for one year.

A third DUI misdemeanor conviction raises the stakes even more. The amount you pay in fines and assessments doesn’t increase, but other penalties do. You may be sentenced to between 120 and 364 days in jail, or to 30 days in jail and probation. If you’re able to go the probation route, you may be ordered to complete a 30-month DUI education program. Following the time served, you’ll likely be on informal probation for three to five years. Your driver’s license will be suspended for three years, though you may be able to obtain a restricted license after six months for an alcohol-related offense or one year for a drug-related offense. In addition, the length of your IID requirement is extended to two years.

If you’re arrested for a DUI after you’ve had three misdemeanor DUI convictions within the previous ten years, this is when the answer to the question, “Is DUI a felony?” is a resounding, “Yes.” Fourth and subsequent DUI convictions are felony convictions and carry increased jail time and penalties. While punishments vary by the individual circumstances of a case, those who have multiple prior misdemeanor convictions and then are convicted of a felony DUI will spend up to four years in prison and be subject to a driver’s license revocation of four years.

Thus far, the discussion has related to charges of solely driving under the influence. If driving under the influence resulted in injuries, however, then the crime is considered a “wobbler.” This means that you can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony. A misdemeanor conviction can carry a penalty of up to one year in jail, up to $5,000 in fines, and a license suspension of between one and three years. A felony conviction can increase your prison sentence to between 16 months and four years.

Causing another person’s death while driving under the influence shifts the charges from a straight DUI to vehicular manslaughter or even second-degree murder. Negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a wobbler, and can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. A misdemeanor conviction can carry a financial penalty and up to a year in jail, while a felony conviction can result in fines up to $10,000 and land you in prison for up to four years, or even more if other people were injured as well. You’ll likely also be required to complete alcohol or drug education or treatment, and will have your driver’s license revoked.

If you caused another person’s death while driving recklessly – think speeding or going the wrong way on the freeway – your punishment may be even more severe. The prison time associated with a conviction of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated depends upon your prior convictions, but can range from up to ten years, all the way to 15 years to life in prison – in addition to fines and penalties.

If you’ve been arrested for a DUI in Alameda county and there were injuries involved, it’s imperative that you consult an Oakland DUI lawyer immediately. A DUI attorney in Alameda County can advocate on your behalf and can do their best to negotiate a misdemeanor plea so that you won’t have a felony on your record, or perhaps negotiate reduced charges so that the penalties are less severe.


California DUI Charges by the Numbers

According to “Crime in California,” a report published by the California Office of the Attorney General, in 2017 there were 4,930 adult felony arrests for driving under the influence. This represented a 5.1 percent drop in arrests from 2016, but a slight uptick from 2015. Felony arrests for driving under the influence constituted 1.7 percent of all adult felony arrests in California during 2017.

When it comes to felony DUI charges, men are arrested more than three times as often as women. Men account for 78.2 of all felony DUI arrests in California. While only about 39 percent of Californians identify as Hispanic or Latino, 50.1 percent of those arrested on felony DUI charges were Hispanic. Similarly, although 6 percent of California residents are African American, 9.5 percent of those arrested for felony driving under the influence were African American.

Of adults arrested on felony DUI charges in California in 2017, 3.6 percent were either 18 or 19 years old, and 41.9 percent were between the ages of 20 and 29. Another 24.9 percent were between 30 and 39, and 28.8 percent were over age 39. While it’s rare for juveniles to be arrested on felony charges of driving under the influence, it does happen. In 2017, 34 juveniles under the age of 18 faced felony DUI charges. That number was unchanged from 2016.

While felony arrests for driving under the influence account for a small percentage of overall felony arrests in California, that same cannot be said of misdemeanor DUI arrests. According to the California Department of Justice report, 119,354 Californians faced DUI misdemeanor arrests in 2017, constituting 15.2 percent of all misdemeanor arrests. While this percentage has steadily declined since 2012 (the first year included in the report), the percentage of misdemeanor DUI arrests is second only to misdemeanor arrests for drug offenses.

Of those arrested for DUI misdemeanors in 2017, 118,927 – or 99.6 percent – were adults. Males accounted for 77.3 of all misdemeanor DUI arrests. Similar to the statistics for felony driving under the influence charges, Hispanics were overrepresented, making up 49 percent of those arrested, and African Americans constituted 9 percent of arrestees.

When it came to kids under 18, 427 were arrested on misdemeanor DUI charges. Those 18 or 19 years old constituted 2.9 percent of misdemeanor DUI arrestees, while 20- to 29-year-olds made up 42.3 percent of those arrested. A lower percentage – 25.3 percent – fell into the 30-39 age group, and 29.1 percent were 40 years old or older when arrested for DUI.


The Long Road Between Arrest and Conviction

While the penalties for virtually every DUI scenario are laid out in California law, it’s important to remember that there are many steps between a DUI arrest and a DUI conviction. If you’ve been arrested for a DUI in Oakland, Berkeley, or another Alameda County community, it’s crucial that your first call is to a DUI attorney in Alameda County. Your Oakland DUI lawyer can intervene early in the process, potentially preventing you from spending time in jail and lessening the financial and other penalties that accompany a DUI conviction. With an experienced attorney at your side, you can challenge the evidence against you, plea to a lesser offense, argue that prior convictions should not be considered, or take your case to trial.

Aside from the very real legal consequences of a DUI conviction – jail time or probation, license revocation, and fines – a conviction can impact other areas of your life. For example, there are tremendous repercussions to your insurability as a driver, which in turn can impact your livelihood. Similarly, a DUI conviction can have an effect on your professional licensure or certifications. If you’re a student, a conviction of driving while under the influence of drugs can mean that you are no longer eligible for federal financial aid. With that much on the line, you need the best legal representation possible. An experienced DUI attorney in Alameda County can help keep a few moments of poor judgment from ruining the rest of your life.

Contact us today if you or a loved one has been charged with a crime.

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