Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a criminal offense in all 50 states. A drunk driving conviction could mean spending time in jail, losing your driver's license, and many other penalties. In many cases, a DUI or DWI is considered a misdemeanor. However, some drunk driving offenses rise to the level of felony DUI, which means more severe penalties and mandatory jail time.
There are many circumstances that can turn a misdemeanor drunk driving charge into a felony DUI. Drunk driving laws vary by state. In some states, aggravating factors can increase the penalties. In other states, the circumstances of your stop can upgrade the offense to a felony. Some of the circumstances that can increase a DUI to a felony charge include:
- DUI with a high BAC
- Causing an accident that hurts or kills another driver
- Multiple DUI offenses
- Having a child in the vehicle at the time of the arrest
- DUI while you already have a suspended driver's license or an ignition interlock device
- Hit-and-run DUI
Most states make it a felony or add penalties for drivers who have an extremely high blood alcohol content (BAC). The higher your BAC, the more likely of a risk you are for causing an accident. A "high BAC" is usually considered much higher than the minimum 0.08% BAC. It usually means a BAC of 0.15% or higher.
It may be an aggravated felony if someone suffers serious bodily injury or is killed in a drunk driving accident. Many states impose additional penalties on drunk drivers who hurt another person with their vehicle. This applies whether the victims are passengers in your car or the occupants of other vehicles. Pedestrians or others in the path of your vehicle are also vulnerable to drunk driving accidents. A fatal drunk driving accident may be charged as felony vehicular manslaughter.
Some states, such as New York and New Jersey have specific laws that make a drunk driving charge a felony if a child is in the car with a drunk driver. In Texas, drivers may be charged with child endangerment in addition to DWI if minors are in the vehicle. If you are convicted of driving drunk with children in the car, you could also face the temporary loss of custody by child welfare authorities, depending on the situation.
In most states, multiple drunk driving offenses can eventually be charged as felonies. A first-time DUI is generally a misdemeanor. Depending on the state, a second, third, or fourth DUI can be charged as a felony. In states like Minnesota, New York, and Indiana, a second DUI can be a felony. In Washington state, a fifth DUI is a felony. Most states fall somewhere in between.
If you have your driver's license suspended or revoked, you are not supposed to drive at all. The only exception might be if you have a restricted license to drive to work, school, or alcohol counseling meetings. Simply being caught driving without a valid license, even if driving while sober, may bring serious consequences in some cases.
If you are found driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol while on a suspended or revoked license, what may otherwise be a misdemeanor charge could potentially be elevated to a felony DUI or DWI.
An ignition interlock device (IID) is like a breathalyzer to start your car. An IID is attached to your vehicle and requires a clean breath, without any trace of alcohol, for the car to start. The IID also requires rolling samples while you are driving. If you get a friend to blow into or you tamper with the device, you can face penalties. If you still get behind the wheel with an IID and are arrested for another drunk driving offense, you could face a felony charge.
If you hit another car, cyclist, or pedestrian, you must stop your vehicle and remain at the scene of the accident. Some drivers panic after an accident because they had a few drinks and worry that they may be over the limit. Fleeing the scene of an accident while impaired can increase the penalties to a felony offense.
Misdemeanor DUI and felony DUI both have serious penalties, but misdemeanor offenses are generally less serious. With a misdemeanor conviction, the maximum jail sentence is no more than one year. A felony conviction, however, can result in a prison term of over a year. Penalties for a felony drunk driving conviction can also include:
- Mandatory prison sentence
- Heavy fines
- DUI school
- License suspension
- Loss of your professional license
- Alcohol treatment
A conviction for felony drunk driving will also leave you with a felony criminal record. As a convicted felon, you may not be able to own or purchase a firearm. A felony charge can also make it harder to find a job, get housing, hold public office, and vote in elections. With so much at stake, it is important to get the right advice from an experienced DUI defense lawyer.