Does a DUI Conviction Count as a Criminal Offense?

How a drunk driving offense can affect your criminal record.

By , Attorney (University of San Francisco School of Law)

With few exceptions, driving under the influence (DUI) is considered a criminal offense. In other words, a DUI conviction will normally show up on your criminal record as a misdemeanor or felony. Below is a discussion of how DUI offenses are categorized, the limited circumstances under which a DUI can end up being a non-criminal offense, and some of the penalties and other consequences of a DUI conviction.

Is a DUI a Felony or Misdemeanor?

Generally, a DUI conviction is a misdemeanor or a felony. Both are criminal offenses, but a misdemeanor is less serious than a felony.

Misdemeanor DUI Convictions

In most states, including California and Utah, first and second DUI convictions are misdemeanors. The defining factor of a misdemeanor classification is the maximum possible jail time is normally a year or less. Fines for misdemeanors usually top-out at $1,000 (but court fees and other costs can increase the amount you end up having to pay). License suspensions for misdemeanor DUI convictions typically range from a few months to a year. And many states impose ignition interlock requirements for drivers convicted of first and second DUIs.

Within these general ranges, it varies quite a bit by state in terms of what you can expect as the typical penalties that are actually imposed for a first or second DUI conviction. For instance, in some states, a second DUI carries no mandatory minimum jail time, whereas, in other states, second offenders must serve at least a few days in jail.

Felony DUI Convictions

Probably the most common factor that makes a DUI a felony is having two or more prior DUI convictions. Many states have a "washout" period for DUI convictions—meaning, only DUIs that occurred with a certain time period count. But assuming you have two DUIs that are either within that period or you're in a state where DUI convictions stay on your record forever, there's a good chance that a third DUI conviction is going to be a felony.

Other factors that can elevate a DUI to a felony are injuries, deaths, and having child passengers in the vehicle during a DUI offense.

For a felony DUI conviction, an offender will typically face a year or more in jail or state prison. And fines for felony DUI convictions can be quite a bit higher than those for misdemeanors—several thousand dollars or more. You can also expect a longer license suspension for a felony DUI. Depending on the circumstances, a felony DUI can result in several years of license suspension or permanent license revocation.

When DUIs Can Be Non-Criminal Traffic Infractions

In most states, a DUI is always going to be a criminal offense. But in New Jersey—where the term "DWI" (driving while intoxicated) is used instead of DUI—driving under the influence is a traffic offense and not considered a crime. Also, New York has an offense called "driving while ability impaired" or "DWAI" that isn't a crime if it involved only alcohol (no drugs). And in a few states, including California and Indiana, an underage DUI is an infraction rather than a criminal offense.

In some instances, it might also be possible to plea bargain for an infraction even though you've been charged with a DUI.

Dealing With a DUI Criminal Record

Having a DUI or any other crime on your record can cause all sorts of problems. But in some states, DUI convictions can be expunged from your record after a certain period of time has passed. Once a conviction has been expunged, it generally allows you to truthfully report that you don't have any convictions.

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