California Felony Driving Under the Influence (DUI)
California DUI cases fall into three general categories – misdemeanors, felonies, and “wobblers.” Wobblers are those criminal DUI offenses that can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors based upon the discretion of the District Attorney. Usually, the prosecutor charging a wobbler DUI will initially charge the case as a felony. However, the prosecutor’s decision as to how to charge a DUI case depends on the specific facts and the policy of the particular District Attorney’s office. A California DUI defense attorney who specializes in drunk driving defense can provide guidance on how each case is likely to be charged and resolved based on the specific facts involved and the attorney’s experience handling DUI cases in the particular county where the arrest occurred.
Most California driving under the influence cases, especially first offenses, are charged as a misdemeanor DUI by the District Attorney. However, some DUI arrests are charged as a felony DUI by prosecutor’s office. A felony DUI case carries much more serious punishment. Although a misdemeanor first offense DUI is punishable by up to six months in the county jail, a felony DUI can be punished by a year or more in a California state prison. It is also important to note that even a second offense driving under the influence conviction can carry up to one year in the county jail.
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Several factors can cause a DUI case to be charged as a felony rather than a misdemeanor. These factors include prior convictions for driving under the influence, whether anyone other than the person arrested for driving under the influence was injured, or whether a death was attributed to driving under the influence.
Drunk drivers who cause injury are almost always charged with a felony. DUI with injury is technically a “wobbler” charge, but prosecutors typically pursue the charge that carries the most punishment. However, it is possible in appropriate cases for an experienced drunk driving defense attorney to have a felony DUI with injury charge reduced to a misdemeanor through a plea bargain or following a DUI jury trial.
Prior drunk driving convictions may also result in a felony DUI charge. A driver arrested on a fourth DUI charge within 10 years of having been convicted of three or more DUI or driving under the influence related offenses will face a felony charge, even if no injury or accident occurred. The prior DUI convictions must be specifically pleaded in the complaint and proven in court beyond a reasonable doubt in order to support a felony DUI conviction. Even prior drinking and driving charges that were reduced to DUI related “wet reckless” may count as prior driving under the influence convictions for the purposes of supporting a felony fourth offense DUI charge.
Any DUI that results in the death of a passenger, another driver, or a pedestrian will always be charged as a felony. Felony drunk driving resulting in death is charged in one of three ways – vehicular homicide, manslaughter, or second-degree murder.
Vehicular homicide is the least serious of the three DUI homicide charges. Vehicular homicide charges stemming from a DUI arrest are brought when the death resulted from ordinary negligence. This is a “wobbler” and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony by the prosecutor.
Manslaughter with gross negligence is a DUI felony that is charged when a death stemmed from criminal negligence. Criminal negligence in a drunk driving case is defined as the knowledge that an individual’s actions were likely to result in death.
Second-degree murder is charged when the person who was drinking and driving is believed to have acted with implied malice, or a conscious disregard for human life. Second-degree DUI murder is an unusual charge in a driving under the influence case, because it is difficult for the prosecution to prove implied malice in the context of a drinking and driving offense. However, it is the most serious of the three DUI homicide charges.
Although a second-degree murder conviction is difficult to prove in a drunk driving death case, prior DUI convictions can be used to show that the individual knew the dangers of drunk driving and chose to take the risk anyway. In many states, including California, a defendant who pleads guilty or no contest to a drunk driving charge must now admit to that knowledge either in court, or through a signed acknowledgement at the time of a DUI plea. This acknowledgement, known as a “Watson advisement,” may be used to support the allegation that the driver acted with implied malice in a subsequent prosecution for second-degree murder stemming from a driving under the influence arrest.
Literally, the DUI advisement typically signed by a person convicted of driving under the influence reads: “I understand that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, impairs my ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both. If I continue to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, and as a result of my driving, someone is killed, I can be charged with murder.” The California Legislature has now required this DUI advisement of all California courts sentencing a person for driving under the influence.
Felony drunk driving carries far more serious penalties than a misdemeanor DUI conviction, so it’s critical to have qualified legal representation. In addition to the enhanced criminal penalties for a felony DUI, the California Department of Motor Vehicles will impose a longer license suspension as a result of a felony driving under the influence conviction. Additionally, even if the felony DUI involving injury is reduced to a misdemeanor DUI causing injury, the California DMV will impose a one year driver license suspension upon learning that the court sentenced a driver for a DUI injury charge. For these reasons, it is critical to hire a California DUI defense lawyer who will develop a strategy to aggressively defend your felony driving under the influence case, and work to minimize all the negative consequences.