A habitual offender is person who has been have been convicted of a crime several times. The term “habitual offender” may imply that the person has been convicted of the same crime many times, but it may also refer to a person who has many convictions for different crimes on their record.

Habitual offenders may be exposed to harsher legal penalties than a first-time offender. That is, having a criminal record involving many convictions may result in greater criminal penalties than what is normally indicated in criminal statutes.

For example, a first-time DUI offense is usually a misdemeanor charge resulting in criminal fees and jail time for less than one year. However, a second or third DUI offense may be “elevated” to a felony charge, which can result in higher fees and time in prison for more than one year.

What Is a Habitual Offender Statute?

A habitual offender statute will usually target offenders who repeat the same type of misdemeanor or felony offense. Habitual offender statutes may vary by state. For example, some state statutes only deal with repeat offenses involving violent crime, while others may also include drug crimes or other convictions. Thus, the legal definition for what is a habitual offender may vary according to jurisdiction.   

Generally, a habitual offender statute will impose additional punishments on offenders who have been convicted at least twice for certain crimes. Also, most habitual offender statutes will consider the length of time that has passed in between the various convictions. 

In some states, statutes might list mandatory sentencing guidelines that must be followed. In other states, the judge may have some discretion in setting sentences for habitual offenders.   

Some states have “Three Strikes” statutes, which focus on defendants with convictions involving serious criminal offenses. Penalties increase with each “strike” or felony conviction; by the third strike, the offender may have to face a life sentence in jail. 

What Are Some Consequences of Habitual Offenses?

Being classified as a habitual offender can result in severe legal consequences, including:

  • Higher criminal fines
  • Longer jail or prison sentences (often times much longer than the normal maximum limit for the crime)
  • Loss of various rights and privileges, such as the right to own a firearm or the loss of driving licenses
  • Negative impacts on the defendant’s child custody privileges

Also, many habitual offenders repeat their crimes because they involve some element of addiction. For example, addiction may be an element in some crimes, especially drug and alcohol-related crimes (such as DUI, public drunkenness, drug possession, etc.). In such cases, the defendant may also be required to complete mandatory substance abuse courses and/or psychological counseling. 

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you are facing habitual offense charges, you may need to speak with a criminal defense lawyer immediately. An experienced criminal attorney can explain how the habitual offender laws in your area might affect your case. Criminal punishments can be very different depending on the type of offense, but a criminal lawyer can help present arguments in your defense.