What Makes a DUI a Felony?

The circumstances when a DUI can be a felony and the possible penalties.

A standard DUI is generally a misdemeanor criminal offense. Misdemeanor DUIs typically carry driver's license penalties, up to a year in jail (though a few days or less is more common), and anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars in fines.

But a DUI that's charged as a felony can carry much more severe penalties. Felony DUI offenses generally carry higher fines and more serious license-related penalties than misdemeanors. However, what really sets felony offenses apart from misdemeanors is the amount of jail time that a conviction carries. Drivers who are convicted of a felony DUI can expect to spend a substantial amount of time behind bars.

This article will give you an idea of some of the circumstances that can result in felony DUI charges and the types of penalties a driver might face for a felony DUI conviction.

Circumstances that Can Lead to Felony DUI Charges

The DUI laws of each state are different. However, in most states, there are aggravating factors that make a DUI a felony. Here are some of the more common circumstances (excluding DUIs involving injuries and deaths, which are discussed in a separate section below) that can make a DUI a felony:

  • Prior DUI convictions. In most states, a DUI can be charged as a felony if the driver has enough prior DUI convictions. Generally, a driver will be subject to felony charges if he or she has at least two prior DUI convictions (though the number varies by state). But in many states, DUI convictions "wash out" and aren't counted as priors after a certain number of years (normally, seven to ten years). Other states count all DUI priors no matter how long ago they occurred.
  • Prior felony DUI convictions. After a driver is convicted of a DUI, any future DUI violations will generally be charged as felonies. Even in states where prior DUIs wash out after a certain number of years, the washout rule typically doesn't apply to felony DUI convictions. So, a prior felony can be considered, no matter how long ago it occurred.
  • Minor passengers. While having a minor passenger often increases the penalties of a DUI, certain states charge these violations as felonies. In states that don't have a specific DUI law for minor passengers, the prosecutor might still be able to charge the driver with felony child endangerment.
  • DUI while operating a school bus. Because they are transporting children, school bus drivers who are caught operating a bus while under the influence generally face severe penalties. In many states, operating a school bus while under the influence is a felony. Also, whereas the legal alcohol limit for most drivers is .08%, school bus drivers are subject to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit of .04% or lower.

Again, while these are some of the most common situations that can lead to felony DUI, each state classifies DUI offenses differently. Depending on what state you're in, the definition of felony DUI might be more or less inclusive than the list discussed here.

Felony Charges for DUIs Involving Injuries and Deaths

A DUI offense that results in serious injuries or the death of another person can generally be charged as a felony. However, state laws treat these types of offenses differently.

DUI enhancements. In some states, the DUI laws incorporate injuries and fatalities as aggravating factors that can result in felony classification and enhancement the penalties for a DUI conviction.

Separate criminal charges. In other states, the driver can be charged with a separate felony offense for causing injuries or death while driving under the influence. For injury offenses, the driver might be charged with vehicular assault or battery. DUI offenses that result in the death of another person could lead to vehicular homicide, manslaughter, or murder charges.

Penalties for Felony DUI Convictions

The penalties for felony DUIs vary quite a bit depending on the circumstances of the offense. However, the hallmark of a felony criminal offense is that it carries at least a year in jail.

For some less serious felonies, the offender can usually expect a sentence close to the one-year minimum and fines of a few thousand dollars or so.

But at the other end of the spectrum—the most serious of felony DUIs, such as those involving death—the offender could be facing up to life in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. A felony DUI can also result in serious license-related penalties such as permanent license revocation.

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