When Is A DUI Charge Considered A Felony In California?

Understanding DUI Laws in California

The state of California is renowned for many things: beautiful beaches, world-famous landmarks, and vibrant nightlife. However, it’s also home to some of the strictest Driving Under the Influence (DUI) laws in the United States. Understanding these laws is crucial, especially if you drive in the Golden State. This article will offer an in-depth look at DUI laws in California, the penalties associated with DUI, and preventative measures to protect yourself and others on the road.

I. Introduction to DUI Laws in California

DUI laws in California are governed primarily by two Vehicle Code sections: 23152(a) and 23152(b). These sections make it illegal to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs and to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher, respectively.

A. Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs

Vehicle Code Section 23152(a) states that “it is unlawful for any person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug, or under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug, to drive a vehicle.” What constitutes being “under the influence” is subjective and typically determined by officer observations, field sobriety tests, and chemical tests.

B. Driving with Excessive Blood Alcohol Concentration

Vehicle Code Section 23152(b) is more objective. It makes it unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.08% or more. Importantly, this law applies irrespective of your ability to drive. Even if your driving isn’t impaired, you can still be charged with a DUI if your BAC exceeds this limit.

II. DUI Penalties

DUI penalties in California vary depending on several factors, including the driver’s BAC level at the time of the arrest, the presence of minors in the car, and the number of previous DUI convictions on the driver’s record.

A. First Offense

A first offense DUI is generally treated as a misdemeanor. It can result in penalties such as a fine ranging from $390 to $1,000, a 48-hour to six-month jail sentence, and a six to ten-month license suspension. Additionally, offenders must complete a three to nine-month DUI program.

B. Multiple Offenses

Repeat offenses carry harsher penalties. For example, a second DUI within ten years can result in a fine of up to $1,800, a two-year license suspension, a jail term of 96 hours to one year, and completion of an 18 to 30-month DUI program.

C. Felony DUI

Certain circumstances can elevate a DUI to a felony. These include causing bodily injury or death while driving under the influence, having a fourth DUI within ten years, or having a previous felony DUI conviction. Felony DUI penalties can include a state prison term of 16 months to 16 years, fines up to $5,000, and revocation of your driving privilege for four years or longer.

III. DUI Checkpoints

In an effort to combat DUI offenses, California law enforcement agencies frequently set up DUI checkpoints. At these checkpoints, officers may stop vehicles at specific intervals and examine drivers for signs of intoxication. It’s important to note that while you have certain rights at these checkpoints, such as the right to avoid self-incrimination, you are required to stop and cooperate with law enforcement officers.

What Makes A DUI Charge a Felony?

Driving under the influence (DUI) is a severe offense with profound consequences. In most states, including California, a first-time DUI charge is typically a misdemeanor, but under certain circumstances, a DUI can escalate to a felony charge, a more serious crime carrying more significant penalties. In this article, we will explore what circumstances can escalate a DUI charge to a felony and the repercussions of such a charge.

I. Understanding Felony DUI

While DUI laws can vary between states, there are common factors that can transform a DUI charge from a misdemeanor into a felony. It’s essential to remember that felony charges have serious implications, such as lengthy prison sentences, substantial fines, and long-term impacts on personal and professional life.

A. Multiple DUI Convictions

Repeated DUI offenses often lead to escalating penalties, and eventually, to a felony charge. In California, for example, a fourth DUI charge within ten years is automatically considered a felony. The aim is to deter habitual offenders and enforce the seriousness of repeated violations.

B. Injury or Death

If a driver under the influence of alcohol or drugs causes an accident resulting in injury or death, the DUI charge can be elevated to a felony. This elevation applies regardless of whether the driver intended to cause harm. The mere act of operating a vehicle while impaired, leading to injury or loss of life, is sufficient to warrant a felony DUI charge.

C. High Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

In some states, an exceptionally high BAC at the time of the offense can upgrade a DUI to a felony, even for first-time offenders. For instance, in certain jurisdictions, if a driver’s BAC is double the legal limit (0.08%), the DUI charge can be elevated to a felony.

D. DUI with a Minor in the Vehicle

Driving under the influence with a minor in the vehicle is another factor that can escalate a DUI to a felony. This situation is viewed as child endangerment, leading to stiffer penalties and a potential felony charge.

Penalties for Felony DUI in California

In California, the penalties for driving under the influence (DUI) are significant. If a DUI offense escalates to a felony charge, the consequences are even more severe. Understanding what distinguishes a felony DUI from a misdemeanor, along with the associated penalties, is crucial. This article will delve into the specifics of felony DUIs in California, focusing on situations that can lead to such charges and the penalties that may result.

I. Defining Felony DUI in California

A DUI offense becomes a felony under specific conditions. Generally, a DUI charge will be elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony under the following circumstances:

  1. If it’s the driver’s fourth DUI offense within a 10-year period.
  2. If the driver has previously been convicted of a felony DUI.
  3. If the DUI incident results in bodily injury or death to another person.

II. Felony DUI Penalties

The penalties for a felony DUI in California are grave, affecting not only the driver’s freedom but also their financial situation, driving privileges, and personal life. The specific penalties can vary based on the circumstances of the case, but generally may include:

A. Imprisonment

  • Fourth DUI Offense: A fourth DUI offense within 10 years is punishable by 180 days to one year in county jail or 16 months to three years in state prison.
  • Previous Felony DUI Conviction: If you’ve previously been convicted of a felony DUI, a subsequent DUI can result in a state prison sentence of 16 months, two years, or three years.
  • DUI causing injury: If a DUI incident results in injury to another person, it can lead to a state prison sentence of two, three, or four years, plus an additional one to six years depending on the number and severity of the injuries.

B. Fines

Felony DUIs come with significant fines, ranging from $390 to $5,000. These do not include other costs and restitution that may also be ordered by the court.

C. Driver’s License Revocation

Convicted individuals face a four-year revocation of their driver’s license for a fourth DUI or a previous felony DUI conviction. If the DUI caused injury, the revocation period could be five years. For those with three or more prior DUI or wet reckless convictions, or any combination thereof, within 10 years, the driver’s license could be revoked permanently.

D. DUI School

Offenders must attend and complete a 30-month DUI education program.

E. Habitual Traffic Offender (HTO) Status

Felony DUI convictions automatically give the offender a Habitual Traffic Offender status for a period of three years, which can lead to additional penalties if the individual continues to drive illegally.

III. “Strike” on Your Record

Additionally, if a DUI caused serious bodily injury or death, it may be considered a “strike” under California’s Three Strikes Law. This can dramatically increase the prison sentence if the individual has prior strikes on their record.


1. What is a DUI in California?

Driving Under the Influence (DUI) in California is operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol, drugs, or both.

2. When is a DUI considered a felony in California?

A DUI is considered a felony in California if you have three prior DUI convictions within a 10-year period, a previous felony DUI conviction, or if your DUI resulted in the injury or death of another person.

3. How does a felony DUI differ from a misdemeanor DUI?

A felony DUI carries more severe penalties than a misdemeanor DUI, including higher fines, longer license suspensions, and the possibility of extensive jail time.

4. What are the penalties for a felony DUI in California?

Penalties for a felony DUI can include a state prison term of 16 months to 16 years, fines up to $5,000, and revocation of your driving privilege for four years or longer.

5. Can a felony DUI be reduced to a misdemeanor?

In some cases, it may be possible to get a felony DUI reduced to a misdemeanor through plea bargaining or if certain circumstances are met, such as a lack of prior convictions.

6. Can I refuse a breathalyzer test if stopped for a DUI in California?

Under California’s implied consent laws, refusing to submit to a chemical test can result in additional penalties, including fines and license suspension.

7. How can I fight a felony DUI charge?

Defenses against a felony DUI charge can include challenging the legality of the traffic stop, disputing the accuracy of field sobriety tests or breathalyzer results, and arguing that there was no actual impairment.

8. What’s the role of a DUI attorney in a felony DUI case?

A DUI attorney can help by evaluating your case, identifying potential defenses, representing you in court, and negotiating with the prosecutor on your behalf.

9. Can a felony DUI affect my employment opportunities?

Yes, a felony DUI conviction can potentially affect employment opportunities, especially in fields that require driving or a clean criminal record.

10. Will a felony DUI show up on a background check?

Yes, a felony DUI will appear on criminal background checks.

11. Are there educational consequences for a felony DUI?

Yes, a felony DUI can impact educational opportunities, including college admissions and eligibility for certain types of financial aid.

12. Can I get a restricted license after a felony DUI conviction?

In some cases, you might be eligible for a restricted license after a period of suspension, but specific criteria must be met.

13. Can a felony DUI charge be expunged from my record?

In California, it may be possible to get a felony DUI expunged from your record, but certain conditions must be met.

14. What is the difference between a DUI and a DWI?

In California, there’s no difference between a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) and a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated). Both terms refer to the same offense.

15. Is a DUI considered a felony in other states?

The classification of DUI offenses varies by state. In some states, a DUI is always a misdemeanor unless someone is injured, while others categorize repeat offenses or high BAC levels as felonies.

16. What is the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit in California?

The legal BAC limit in California is 0.08% for drivers aged 21 and over. It’s 0.01% for those under 21 or on DUI probation and 0.04% for commercial drivers.

17. Can I be charged with a DUI if I’m under the legal BAC limit?

Yes, you can be charged with a DUI if you’re impaired by alcohol or drugs, even if your BAC is below the legal limit.

18. What are the penalties for refusing a breathalyzer test?

Refusing a breathalyzer test can lead to immediate license suspension, fines, and mandatory jail time if convicted of a DUI.

19. What are field sobriety tests?

Field sobriety tests are exercises, such as walking a straight line or standing on one leg, that police use to evaluate a driver’s level of impairment.

20. Can I refuse a field sobriety test in California?

Yes, you can refuse to perform a field sobriety test in California without incurring penalties.

21. How does California’s “implied consent” law work?

Under California’s implied consent law, any person who drives a motor vehicle is considered to have given consent to a chemical test if lawfully arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence.

22. Can a DUI checkpoint be challenged in court?

Yes, a DUI checkpoint can be challenged in court if it does not meet legal requirements, such as having supervisory approval and being reasonably located.

23. Are DUI checkpoints legal in all parts of California?

Yes, DUI checkpoints are legal in all parts of California, provided they follow specific criteria laid out by the state and the U.S. Supreme Court.

24. How long does a DUI conviction stay on my record in California?

A DUI conviction stays on your driving record for 10 years in California.

25. How can I find a good DUI attorney?

You can find a good DUI attorney by asking for recommendations, checking online reviews, researching their experience and qualifications, and setting up consultation meetings.

26. What happens during a DUI arraignment?

During a DUI arraignment, you are formally charged with the offense, you enter your plea, and future court dates are set.

27. Can I represent myself in a DUI case?

While you have the right to represent yourself, it’s highly advised to hire an attorney due to the complexity of DUI laws and the severe penalties involved.

28. Does a felony DUI affect my right to vote?

In California, your voting rights are restored upon completion of your sentence and parole for a felony conviction, including DUI.

29. Can a felony DUI result in deportation?

While a DUI conviction can have severe immigration consequences, typically a single DUI conviction, without aggravating factors, does not result in deportation. However, certain DUI convictions involving drugs or multiple offenses may have serious immigration consequences.

30. Can insurance rates increase after a felony DUI?

Yes, insurance rates typically increase after a DUI conviction, as insurers deem you a high-risk driver. Some insurers may even refuse to insure you.