Driving under the influence, more commonly known as a “DUI”, is a crime that occurs when an individual operates a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or another substance, such as an illegal drug or certain prescription medications.
Other labels for a DUI can include driving while intoxicated, operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, and operating under the influence.
Each state has its own separate laws for DUI offenses. The relevant state statutes will provide the name used within the state, the definition of the different levels of DUIs that a person can be charged with (e.g., an impaired person driving a car versus a person driving a bike intoxicated), and the types of punishment the defendant may receive if convicted.
When Does a DUI Become a Felony?
In general, driving under the influence is usually classified as a misdemeanor offense. There are some cases, however, where the actions of the impaired driver may rise to the level of a felony. When this happens, it means that there are specific factors present, such as the following:
- The DUI incident resulted in the death of or serious bodily injury to another individual;
- The DUI involved elements of either severe recklessness or disregard for the safety of other persons; or
- The charges amounted to a second or third level of DUI offense (e.g., a repeat offender).
It is important to note that some states divide DUI felonies into separate degrees, such as 1st or 2nd degree felonies, and so forth. As previously mentioned, these types of classifications and their resulting penalties will depend on the laws of each individual state.
What are Some of the Legal Penalties for a Felony DUI Charge?
The legal consequences that a defendant may face if convicted of a felony DUI charge are quite severe. This includes punishments that involve prison sentences for at least a year or longer and to be served at a state prison (i.e., not a county jail), along with heavy criminal fines.
As with most felonies, the conviction can stay on the defendant’s criminal record for the rest of their life. This can result in the loss of many rights, including the right to drive a motor vehicle, the right to retain custody of their children, and in some cases, even the right to vote in an election.
In contrast, when a DUI charge results in a regular misdemeanor offense, the defendant can usually only receive a punishment of less than a year of imprisonment (in this instance served in a county jail), and some relatively smaller criminal fees.
Are There Any Defenses for DUI Felony Charges?
There are several defenses that a defendant may be able to use against a DUI felony charge. For example, it can be raised as a defense if the defendant was coerced or forced into driving a motor vehicle while drunk. This may happen when a person is told to drive or else the person telling them to do so will inflict serious bodily injury or harm on them.
Some other types of defenses may include:
- Affirmative defenses (e.g., the accused was not the actual impaired driver);
- Improper police action or entrapment;
- Involuntary intoxication;
- Accuracy of the field sobriety test;
- Rising blood alcohol content concentration;
- Mistake of fact;
- Insufficient evidence;
- Accuracy of the portable breathalyzer test;
- Improper stop or other police procedure;
- Accuracy of the standard breathalyzer test; and
- Various other situational or applicable affirmative defenses.
Finally, it is also important to understand that not all defenses are used for the purpose of getting the charges against a defendant dropped. In some instances, a defense is simply used to reduce the level of felony that the defendant will be charged with, which in turn, will help the court determine the amount of fines and/or prison sentence to issue the defendant. Basically, some defenses will only serve to bring down and reduce, not completely erase, the charges.
Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with Felony DUI Charges?
Being charged with a felony DUI offense is a very serious matter. Aside from the complexity of the laws involved, it is often necessary to retain the assistance of an experienced attorney because the defendant will usually need to appear in court.
Therefore, if you are facing charges for a felony DUI offense, then you should contact a local DUI and/or DWI lawyer as soon as possible. A lawyer can help you to prepare your case, research the relevant laws in your jurisdiction, and determine whether there are any defenses available that you may be able to use against the charges to get them either dropped or reduced.
A lawyer can also discuss the penalties that you might receive and whether there are any other legal courses that you can take that may decrease the degree of felony charges or your possible punishment.