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Criminal Defense

Misdemeanor vs. Felony DUI: Understanding the Legal Distinctions in Los Angeles County

By August 23, 2023May 19th, 2024No Comments
Legal Text in Black Bold | Criminal Attorney in Los Angeles California​​​​ | Wegman & Levin

Even though we recognize the potential dangers of driving while intoxicated, there may be times when we get caught up in a night of celebration and think we are capable of driving ourselves home at the end of the evening. Unfortunately, momentary lapses in judgment can lead to dramatic and even life-changing consequences, such as criminal charges, revocation of a driver’s license, or incarceration. All states have some type of criminal charges relating to driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUI). In California, most DUI offenses are considered misdemeanor crimes. However, there are factors that can elevate these charges to felony offenses, which carry much heftier and lasting penalties if you’re convicted. Whether law enforcement officers in Los Angeles County have arrested you for a misdemeanor or felony DUI offense, it’s imperative for you to contact a skilled and experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Your lawyer will assess the specifics of your situation and help you develop the most strategic path forward to keep your future as bright as possible. Let’s take a closer look at how California handles misdemeanor and felony DUI charges and the steps you can take to ensure your rights remain intact and upheld at every stage of the criminal justice process.

How California Defines “Driving Under the Influence”

First, it’s helpful to understand what behaviors constitute “driving under the influence” under California state law. California Vehicle Code Section 23152 states, “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage to drive a vehicle.” The statute moves on to clarify that “It is unlawful for a person who has 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle.” Other factors may lead to a DUI charge, such as someone with a commercial driver’s license driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.04 percent or higher or someone under 21 operating a vehicle with a blood-alcohol content of 0.01 percent or higher. It’s also important to understand that “under the influence” does not only apply to alcohol; ingesting any substance that can affect your driving ability is unlawful—even legal prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications (like cold medicine) can slow your response times and impair your driving. 

Most First-Time Offenders Face Misdemeanor DUI Charges

If this is your first time facing a DUI charge, it will likely be considered a misdemeanor offense. As long as the incident did not cause any catastrophic injuries or fatalities, a first-time DUI offender will probably face penalties like fines, mandatory DUI-related educational programming, the suspension of their driver’s license, and potential jail time (which can sometimes be commuted to probation). For example, the court may order a first-time DUI offender to spend up to six months in jail, pay fines of up to $3,600, face a license suspension for four months or longer, attend three months of DUI school, comply with the mandatory installation of an ignition interlocking device, and face between three to five years of probation. California judges have the ability to determine the specifics of an individual’s sentence, so it’s essential to work with a knowledgeable and experienced DUI defense attorney who can advocate strongly for your best interests.

Subsequent DUI Convictions Carry Steeper Penalties

Most states recognize that someone driving under the influence one time is likely going to do so again. If law enforcement arrests you for a DUI-related offense and you already have one or more DUI convictions on your record, the penalties you face for this subsequent offense will be more severe and restrictive. For example, a second DUI conviction may be punishable by a license suspension of up to two years, up to one year in jail, between 18 months and 30 months of DUI education, fines of up to $4,000, and other restrictions. Essentially, the more DUI convictions you accumulate, the less lenient the court will be when you face new DUI charges.

When DUI Crimes Become Felony Offenses

Several factors may increase DUI charges from misdemeanor to felony offenses. Below are a few circumstances that may determine whether you will face more substantial criminal penalties if you are convicted of a DUI-related crime.

Fourth DUI Conviction Within Ten Years

If you have been convicted of three or more DUI offenses within the last ten years, any subsequent offense will probably result in a felony charge. It’s crucial to understand that any previous DUI convictions, even those prosecuted in another state, will count. Even though prosecutors have the discretion to decide whether the new offense should be charged as a misdemeanor or felony offense, they will likely seek the highest penalties because of your previous convictions. 

Previous Felony DUI Convictions

Those with one or more previous DUI felony convictions on their record will likely face a felony charge for any new offense, even if it would be considered a misdemeanor offense to a first-time offender. Also, the ten-year window does not apply in these situations—even if 30 years have passed since your previous DUI felony conviction, any new DUI offense will be considered a felony.

DUIs Causing Injury or Death

If the DUI-related incident caused the death of another person because of your actions, prosecutors can bring felony charges against you. These charges, such as vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, carry significant and lasting penalties, including years in prison, steep fines, and other limitations on your future and freedom. In DUI cases where the intoxicated driver’s actions caused injuries to others, prosecutors may determine whether to bring misdemeanor or felony charges. Even if you tell yourself you are “only facing misdemeanor charges,” be aware that any criminal conviction can impact the course of your life in monumental ways. It’s best to enlist the trusted guidance of a skilled and experienced DUI defense lawyer to maximize your chances of obtaining the best possible outcome.

Having a DUI conviction on your record can impact your life in considerably negative ways. If you are facing misdemeanor or felony DUI charges in Los Angeles County, call Wegman & Levin today at (818) 980-4000 to schedule a free consultation with an experienced and skilled criminal defense attorney.

Michael M. Levin, Esq.

Michael M. Levin is an experienced attorney who has been in private practice as a criminal defense lawyer for over 25 years. He has conducted numerous jury trials in cases ranging from DUI to capital murder. Read More

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