What Is a Felony DUI in California?

Factors that can elevate a California DUI from a misdemeanor to a felony.

In California, you're considered to be "driving under the influence" (DUI) if you drive a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more or while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A California DUI is generally a misdemeanor. But certain aggravating factors can result in a DUI being a felony offense.

Here are some of the circumstances that can result in felony DUI charges in California and the consequences of a conviction.

Fourth DUI Conviction Is a Felony

California law counts only DUI convictions occurring in the last ten years when calculating penalties for a current offense. However, the tally includes wet reckless, out-of-state DUI, or other impaired driving convictions. For a first, second, or third DUI conviction in ten years, the offense will generally be a misdemeanor. However, a fourth DUI conviction within a ten-year period can be charged as a felony.

A fourth-offense DUI will typically result in $390 to $1,000 in fines and 180 days to one year in jail. The driver's license will also be revoked for four years. But, after 12 months of suspension, a restricted driver's license is available with court approval, enrollment in a 30-month DUI program, and installation of an ignition interlock device (IID).

Having a Prior Felony DUI

Once a driver has a felony DUI conviction, all future DUI convictions will be considered felonies. In other words, it doesn't matter if the prior felony DUI occurred more than ten years ago—it still counts.

Felony Injury DUI

Generally, an impaired driver who causes a non-fatal injury will be guilty only of a misdemeanor. But if the offender had two prior DUI (or similar) offenses in the last ten years, the third offense can be charged as a felony in certain circumstances. To get a conviction in court for this kind of felony DUI, the prosecutor must show that the driver was impaired, that the driver committed a negligent act (such as a traffic violation), and that negligence caused injury to another person.

A felony injury DUI conviction will result in two to four years in prison, $1,015 to $5,000 in fines, a five-year license revocation, and a 30-month DUI program. The judge can also order an additional three years of prison if the injury is found to be "great."

Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

An impaired driver who causes a death through negligence or a traffic violation can be convicted of a felony called "negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated." When charged as a felony, this offense carries 16 months, two years, or four years in prison. And, if the prosecutor proves the defendant acted with "gross negligence," the offense carries 15 years to life in state prison.

"Watson" Murder

Finally, California permits impaired drivers to be charged and convicted of second-degree murder in certain circumstances. This type of murder is sometimes called "Watson" murder, so named because the relevant law was established in a California Supreme Court case called "People v. Watson."

Generally, second-degree murder will result in 15 years to life in prison.

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