When is DUI a Felony?

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If you’ve been arrested for DUI (driving under the influence), or if you’ve been hit by a drunk driver, you might be wondering: is DUI a felony? There is really no simple answer to this question, since felony DUI laws vary from state to state. There are, however, some fairly consistent guidelines that determine when a DUI jumps from a misdemeanor offense to a felony offense.

First, it’s important to understand the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. A misdemeanor is usually considered a minor crime that will result in a maximum sentence of up to one year in county jail. A felony, on the other hand, carries a minimum sentence of one year in state prison. Whether or not DUI is considered a felony depends in part on the level of harm caused by the drunk driver.

Whether or not DUI is classified as felony also depends on the number of prior offenses.  In general, first offenses that do not result in serious harm to another person are charged as misdemeanors. Assuming no one was hurt by the drunk driver, in many states a DUI does not become a felony offense until the 4th DUI arrest. Some states will raise DUI to a felony on the 2nd or 3rd offense, so it’s important to check your own state laws.

If anyone was seriously injured or killed due a drunk driving incident, the driver will probably be charged with a felony. Examples of felony charges that drunk drivers may face include vehicular assault, vehicular manslaughter, and even vehicular homicide in some cases. Each of these crimes carries a hefty sentence, including stiff fines and time in state prison.

Blood alcohol level may also play a role in whether DUI is a felony. In many states, .08 is the legal limit, and a limit of .15 will often involve additional penalties. There is no legal limit for those under legal drinking age, since they should not drink at all.  Anyone underage who has alcohol in their system is also subject to a juvenile offense for underage drinking.

The only way to know for sure whether DUI is a felony is to read the charging papers from the trial court, or if no charges have been filed, to contact a DUI attorney in your jurisdiction. If you were arrested for driving under the influence, consider this a learning experience and make sure not to drive drunk again. If you managed to avoid causing serious injury or death to others, be doubly thankful – you may not be so lucky next time.


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