The State of California has some of the most stringent DUI laws compared to any other state in the US. California DUI laws prohibit motorists from driving under the intoxication of both legalized and illegalized drugs. Under the DUI Law, you can be arrested and charged if your blood alcohol concentration exceeds the legal limit of 0.01 % for drivers under 21, 0.08% if above 21 or 0.04 % if you possess a commercial driving license. Driving under the influence impairs your judgment and any accident arising from a DIU offence is treated as a misdemeanor or a felony.
Despite the highly active law enforcement presence and consistent prosecutions by the district attorney’s office, Orange County continues to report the worst drunk driving in California. According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, 10 cities in Orange County rank among the worst in California for the highest rates of injuries and fatalities caused by DUI. The stakes of a criminal case in Orange County are higher than in any other place in the country due to the Three Strikes sentencing law implemented by the state to address DUI offenses.
Understanding DUI Felonies: Is a DUI a Felony?
Under Section 23152 of the Vehicle Codes, it is against the law to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of any alcoholic beverage. Under the Penal Code, first, second, and third DUI offenses are treated as misdemeanors. Convictions attract fines, suspension of driving licenses, probation, and compulsory attendance to a DUI school. However, if the defendant installs an ignition interlock device in their car, they are allowed to continue driving.
Inherently, although DUI offenses are treated as misdemeanors, there are 5 major aggravating circumstances that help in determining when a DUI offense is considered a felony.
1. Multiple Prior Convictions
In California, DUI offenses are treated as misdemeanors. However, they are subsequent offenses, meaning there will be stiffer penalties and sentences every time you are convicted for a similar offense. If you have been convicted three or more times within the last ten years and suffer another DUI arrest, you will be charged with a felony. The ten-year period is calculated starting from the date of your current DUI arrest. Convictions before that will not be considered unless they were also felony DUI.
Not all fourth offenses are treated as felonies; the prosecutor has the right to charge you with either a felony or misdemeanor based on the mitigating circumstances that include
- Prior convictions of driving under the influence
- Wet reckless convictions
- Out of state conviction that would be equated to a DUI if committed in California
Alternatively, a reliable DUI defense lawyer may be able to negotiate a fourth DUI as a misdemeanor.
2. Prior DUI Felony Conviction
If you have been convicted for a prior felony DUI, a subsequent conviction will also be charged as a felony regardless of the severity. Even a simple DUI with no aggravating circumstances will be charged as a felony. There is no 10-year limit period for prior felonies and any previous felony conviction will be considered in such a situation.
3. DUI Causing Injury
A DUI resulting in bodily injury including loss of limbs, brain injury, or someone going into a coma is charged as a felony in Orange County. Under code 23153, causing bodily injury while driving under the influence is considered a wobbler offense where the prosecutor may charge it as a felony based on the circumstance that proof your impaired judgment caused the accident.
To be convicted, it must be proved that you were driving under the influence and committed a violation of traffic rules or a negligent act that resulted in the accident, which caused bodily harm. If this is your first DUI, the prosecution may charge it as a misdemeanor.
4. DUI with Child Endangerment
California has strict rules aimed at protecting the plight of children. If a driver arrested under DUI is found to have a minor in the car, there are two circumstances to determine when a DUI is a felony;
- 23572 vc DUI with a child under 14: the sentencing adds a mandatory jail term in addition to the underlying DUI charges.
- 273a pc Child endangerment: This is treated as a serious offense filed in addition to the DUI charge. These charges are reserved for egregious DUI behavior, such as very high blood alcohol levels or driving with a child not wearing a seatbelt or an approved child’s seat. The prosecutor will charge a DUI offender under this code to prove that the driver willfully placed the minor in danger.
5. DUI Causing Death
DUI accidents resulting in a victim’s death are treated as felonies under vehicular manslaughter, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, or second-degree murder (Watson murder). Under the law, murder means you had the intention of killing someone or intentionally a negligent act that you knew would likely kill someone.
A DUI causing death can be treated as second-degree murder if you have been convicted of a similar offense. It is a murder charge if you were well aware that driving under the influence can result in death. Under traffic laws, all first-time DUI offenders are required to read and sign the Watson Advisement, which is a statement acknowledging that driving under the influence can result in death.
Prosecutors attempt DUI murder charges even for first-time offenders, meaning you did not sign the Watson advisement. However, for this to happen, the prosecution proves that you portrayed malice or extreme recklessness while driving.
Penalties for DUI Felonies
Felony convictions for DUI in Orange County carry serious penalties. The penalties include both statutory punishments like imprisonment and fines, while collateral consequences come with the conviction. The major penalties provided for DUI felonies include;
- State imprisonment: DUI felonies carry a prison term of 16 months, two years, and three years. The default sentence is two years, but the court may consider mitigating and aggravating circumstances that would lower or raise the jail term.
- Five years’ probation
- Fines of $5,000 in addition to other legal expenses
- 3-year habitual traffic offender status
- Loss of your driving license for up to 10 years
- Mandatory alcohol and drug addiction treatment
Although there is no statute for the collateral consequences of DUI felonies, the impact is harsh since one losses rights and privileges as a US citizen. The consequences include difficulty finding employment, losing the right to vote, loss of security clearance, suspension of professional licenses, and difficulty owning properties.
Defenses and Remedies
DUI cases have potential defenses. The viable defenses fall under the categories of challenges to the stop and challenges to the test. DUI cases commence with a traffic stop. The police have the mandate to stop a vehicle if the behavior shows they could be under the influence. If the police stop you without probable cause to believe you have committed a crime, any evidence obtained at the time could be excluded from the trial.
The second defense involves challenging the results of the blood, breath, and urine test. These tests are the most powerful evidence of intoxication when they result in a high blood alcohol concentration. Errors in testing from non-calibrated machines or when obtaining the samples could render the results meaningless, allowing your defense attorney to exclude the results from the trial.
Can a Felony DUI be dropped to a Misdemeanor?
Although Orange County is stringent of DUI felonies, some circumstances may see the felony reduced to a misdemeanor. Only wobbler felony charges will qualify for a reduction to misdemeanors in Orange County. DUI causing injury and vehicular manslaughter are both wobblers that could help get your charges dropped to a misdemeanor.
Considering the complicated process of reducing DUI felonies to misdemeanors, some drivers opt to reduce the penalties and collateral consequences. Professional organizations in California deny and revoke licenses for convicted felonies. Employers and landlords might not approve your application if you face felony charges. Reducing the felony can eliminate the consequences.
Even though you will successfully get a misdemeanor, this will not undo the results of a conviction. Furthermore, the courts may decide that the offenses still count under the Three Strikers Law.
Hire a DUI Defense Attorney, Orange County
Defending yourself against a DUI felony in Orange County is a complicated process that needs an in-depth understanding of when a DUI is a felony. From the time of arrest, the law offers you legal options. Hiring an experienced Orange County DUI criminal defense lawyer will help negotiate your felony to a misdemeanor. Although the case may be reduced to a misdemeanor, you still face imprisonment and the use of an IID. In addition, you may have to attend Orange County’s DUI School.
At Seyb Law Group, we offer clients exceptional defense representation for DUI felonies in Orange County and surrounding counties. Our goal is to protect your rights and help you get the best possible outcome of your DUI case. From the time the accident happened, any action taken thereafter can impact the outcome of your trial without proper representation and evidence. Therefore, we focus on defending you against the felony charges, and where possible, we even work on getting the charge expunged from your records so that they do not affect some issues in your life. Contact us and speak with our DUI attorneys, who will explain all the circumstances surrounding your case and the possible remedies.