Drunk driving is often referred to as driving under the influence of alcohol, or DUI, but can also be known as as driving while intoxicated, or DWI, or by similar terms. Regardless of the language used, it is a crime in every state, and one that often comes with significant penalties. In the last several decades states have become increasingly intolerant of drunk driving and have imposed harsher penalties. While many DUI crimes are considered misdemeanor offenses, felony DUI charges are also possible depending on the circumstances surrounding the offense.
It is also against the law to drive while under the influence of drugs, whether they are legally used (such as a prescription) or are illegal (such as marijuana). For more information on driving under the influence of drugs, see Felony DUI: Drugs.
When a person is charged with a DUI offense, the crime is charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor crime is a less serious offense than a felony, with less significant penalties. Felony offenses can result in a year or more in prison, plus substantial fines and other penalties, while misdemeanor DUIs can result in maximum of up to a year in jail.
What differentiates a felony offense from a misdemeanor offense depends entirely on state laws and the circumstances of the case. This means, for example, that a driver might be charged with a felony DUI in one state, while if the same crime had occurred in another state it might be charged as a misdemeanor. While state laws on felony DUI differ, and often significantly, there are several common factors that make a DUI a felony instead of a misdemeanor. These are often referred to as aggravating factors or aggravating circumstances.
One of the ways a misdemeanor DUI can rise to the level of a felony DUI is when a driver has had a lot to drink, so much so that his or her blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, is above a legally specified amount. For example, most states set a BAC of .08 percent as the minimum level a person must have to be charged with a DUI. If a person's BAC is significantly higher, say 0.16 percent or more, that's can lead to a felony DUI charge.
A DUI can be charged as a felony if the driver was involved in an accident that resulted in injury or harm. For example, if you get into a crash while driving with a BAC over the legal limit, you probably won't be charged with a felony DUI unless other factors are present. However, if someone is injured because of the crash, that is often enough to elevate the crime to a felony offense. It doesn't matter if the injured person is a passenger or the drunk driver, and any DUI incident that results in someone getting harmed or injured can lead to a felony DUI charge.
Habitual or repeat offenders often face felony DUI charges if they have had previous DUI convictions within a specified time limit. For example, a state may categorize a DUI as a felony if the driver has been convicted of three or more DUIs within the previous seven years. However, some states are more strict about previous offenses, and a single conviction within the previous 10 years can automatically elevate the new DUI offense to a felony.
If you're found driving under the influence with others in the car, you may also face a felony DUI charge instead of a misdemeanor. Driving with a child in the vehicle is considered a felony offense in many states. A “child,” for the purposes of the DUI offense, is typically any person under the age of 16.
A person who drives with a suspended license can also face a felony DUI regardless of other aggravating factors. When you have your license suspended you are no longer legally permitted to drive. If you are found to be driving under the influence of alcohol while on a license suspension, this is often enough to raise the DUI from a misdemeanor to a felony offense.
Felony DUI penalties are often significant, and anyone convicted faces serious fines as well as the potential of a lengthy incarceration. However, penalties for DUI differ among states, and courts have some discretion in determining what penalty to impose, so sentences can differ significantly from case to case.
A felony DUI is a very serious crime, and one that could result in a lengthy prison sentence. Even if you aren't convicted of the crime, being charged with a DUI is enough for the state to restrict or remove your driving privileges, something that could seriously disrupt your life. Any time you are facing a DUI charge you need to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Your ability to remain free and keep your license may hinge upon what you say during the criminal justice process, and only a local attorney who knows the local prosecutors, police, and courts can give you advice about your case.