Driving while intoxicated, or under the influence of alcohol, can carry serious criminal charges. For the majority of drunk drivers, only a misdemeanor conviction is applied. For those drivers whose conduct results in an accident with another vehicle, property, or pedestrian, the offense is labeled a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
Misdemeanors and felonies differ only in terms of their consequences and lasting effects. A misdemeanor, for example, can involve time in jail, while a felony usually requires that a sentence of one year or more be served in prison. These consequences are in addition to fines that are proportionate to the level and severity of the crime. Aside from court or local municipality fines, the court could also assess restitution for any damages that incurred as a result of an accident.
In California, the severity of the crime of drunk driving becomes irrelevant once the defendant reaches their fourth offense within a ten-year period. At this point, the offense, regardless of whether or not it involved an accident, is considered a felony.
In some instances, if the victim of the drunk driving offense agrees to settle their damages directly with the offender, a civil compromise can be reached. This would require that the offender pay the victim in exchange for a reduced sentence or no sentence at all.
It is also preferable for the offender to mitigate, or lessen their level of liability or appearance of guilt. In doing so, the defendant would be able to successfully argue that the crime is deserving of only a misdemeanor conviction as opposed to a felony, saving a lifetime of headaches in the process. Employers and landlords routinely access criminal records. When a felony conviction is discovered, refusal of employment or housing is probable.
With misdemeanor offenses, there is usually no need for a grand jury to convene and investigate DUI charges. Also, the offender does not lose some of his or her rights, such as being allowed to serve on a jury, vote, or practice certain professions.
Felonies, on the other hand, are very serious crimes that come with far more severe consequences. If a person is convicted of a felony, he or she can expect to serve at least one year in prison. Some common felonies include assault in the first degree or assault that causes serious bodily injury, all degrees of murder, rape or sexual abuse in the first degree, grand theft, kidnapping, embezzlement of large amounts of money, serious drug crimes, and racketeering.
A drunk driver who is involved in an accident that kills or causes harm to another person, or who is arrested for the fourth time on DUI charges in ten years, is nearly always charged with a felony.
A regular drunk driving offense usually becomes an automatic felony charge if the driver committed an illegal act, neglected a legal responsibility, or if his or her aforementioned negligence resulted in harm to a person. In the case of drunk driving, a person can be charged with a felony after his or her third DUI misdemeanor, even if there is no human casualty or property damage.
If convicted of a felony, a person can expect to suffer more serious penalties in addition to jail time. In many cases, convicted felons cannot serve on juries. Sometimes they lose their right to vote and to practice certain professions such as law or teaching. Furthermore, felons may be denied the right to own guns or to serve in the military. Those convicted of DUI felonies who are involved in an accident are required to pay restitution to the victims, for which a separate hearing is held.