Felony DUI in California

When arrested for DUI, one of the first questions people often have is, “Is a DUI a felony?” In most cases, people arrested for driving under the influence are not charged with a felony DUI. In California, there are three main situations in which the district attorney might choose to charge someone with a Felony DUI:

  • there was bodily injury to a person other than the person being charged
  • the person being charged is on their fourth DUI (or more) within a period of 10 years
  • the person being charged has at least one prior felony DUI charge on their record

If you have been charged or think there is any possibility that you might be charged with a felony DUI, you should stop searching for information on the internet and instead contact an experienced DUI attorney in your local area. While we try not to unduly scare people at Bair Legal, we do want you to know the truth: if you are convicted in California for felony driving under the influence, you face the possibility of prison time and significant fines. For many careers, a felony DUI on your record will create lifelong disadvantages.

Understanding California Felony DUI

Most of the felony DUI cases we see in our offices relate to the first situation of bodily injury detailed in California Vehicle Code Statute 25135 – Driving Under Influence of Alcohol or Drugs Causing Injury. In fact, this statue often gets referred to as "Felony Drunk Driving." However, that designation is misleading; just because someone was injured does not mean the person arrested for DUI will be charged with a felony.

In order to be charged as felony DUI, the prosecutor must believe that the person arrested for driving under the influence caused the accident. For example, if a drunk driver proceeded lawfully through an intersection and her car was struck by another vehicle running a red light that resulted in injury of the person running the red light, the drunk driver would most likely not be charged with felony DUI. However, even if the intoxicated driver was not at fault, district attorneys have been known to overcharge and file for a felony DUI nevertheless. Thus, a DUI defense attorney might use fault as one line of argument.

While most people have a common-sense definition of what constitutes bodily injury, California law in definition and practice is not so straightforward. While bodily injury has to involve more than a "shaking up," it does not necessarily require any medical attention or loss of work. Depending on what county you are arrested in, the district attorney will have their own standard for determining if the level of injury rises to a felony DUI charge. For this reason, it is important to consult with a local DUI defense attorney who knows the courts and prosecutors in the area.

The other two situations that might result in a felony DUI charge — fourth DUI and prior felony DUI — are what are referred to as wobblers. These two situations are described in California VC statutes 23550 and 23550.5. As wobblers, the district attorney can choose to file in these situations either as a felony DUI or a misdemeanor DUI. In practice, most district attorneys will usually charge felonies under these situations. However, wobblers often create opportunities for a defense DUI attorney to plea bargain.

California Vehicle Code Statute - Online Link