Driving Under the Influence (DUI) / Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) cases fall into three different categories – misdemeanors, felonies, and “wobblers” those offenses that can be charged either way, but usually are charged as felonies. How a drunk driving case is charged depends on many factors. A California criminal defense attorney experienced in drunk driving defense can evaluate each case to determine how it is likely to be charged.
Most DUI / DWI cases, particularly first offenses, are charged as misdemeanors. However, under certain circumstances, drunk driving can be charged as a felony, which carries a harsher penalty. Criminal charges generally are defined by the potential punishment – felonies can be punished by a year or more in prison, while misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in county jail.
Several factors can prompt prosecutors to file DUI / DWI cases as felonies rather than misdemeanors, including injuries, prior convictions, or drunk driving that results in death to a passenger, a person in another vehicle, or a bystander.
A drunk driving case that involves injury to someone other than the driver typically is charged as a felony. DUI / DWI with injury technically is a “wobbler” charge, meaning it can be charged either way, but most prosecutors pursue the charge that carries greater punishment. A skilled drunk driving defense attorney may be able to have a DUI / DWI with injury reduced to a misdemeanor through a plea bargain.
Prior convictions also can prompt prosecutors to file felony charges. Anyone arrested on a fourth DUI / DWI charge within 10 years likely will face a felony charge, even if no accident or injury occurred. The prior convictions must be specifically pleaded in the complaint and proven in court. Even prior DUI charges that were reduced may count in this calculation.
Drunk driving that causes the death of a passenger, another driver, or anyone else will nearly always be charged as a felony. The crime falls into one of three categories – vehicular homicide, manslaughter, or second-degree murder.
Vehicular homicide is charged when the death resulted from ordinary negligence. This is a “wobbler” and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony by the prosecutor.
Manslaughter with gross negligence is a felony that is charged when death was the result of criminal negligence. Criminal negligence in the context of drunk driving is generally defined as the knowledge that an individual’s actions were likely to result in death.
Second-degree murder is charged when the death occurs and the person who was drinking and driving acted with implied malice, or a conscious disregard for life. Second-degree murder is an unusual charge in a DUI / DWI case, because it is difficult to establish implied malice.
However, if a defendant has prior DUI / DWI convictions, they can be used to show that the individual knew the dangers of drunk driving. In certain jurisdictions including California, a defendant who pleads guilty or no contest to a drunk driving charge must admit to that knowledge either in court, or through a signed admission. This advisement, known as a “Watson warning,” may be used as evidence that the person acted with implied malice in a subsequent prosecution for second-degree murder.
Because felony drunk driving cases carry far harsher penalties than misdemeanors, it’s important to have excellent legal representation. A California DUI / DWI defense attorney can evaluate the factors in each case to minimize potential consequences, and provide the best possible defense.