Most states classify a standard DUI (or DWI) charge as a misdemeanor. Certain circumstances can raise the level of the charge to a felony, however. A conviction for a felony DUI carries stiffer penalties and more lasting consequences than a misdemeanor charge. Not every state has the same rules for what does and does not constitute felony drunk driving, though, so you should check the laws and procedures in your state for more information. Here are some common situations that could result in a felony DUI/DWI charge:
Elevated Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)
Every state currently has a .08 percent "per se" DUI rule in effect. This rule states that, if a driver has a BAC of .08 or above, the state can assume that the driver is intoxicated in violation of the statute.
In addition, States commonly will elevate a drunk driving charge to a felony if chemical tests reveal that the driver's BAC exceeds a certain elevated level set by law - usually around .16 percent. Not every state has this law, but at the minimum states generally impose a harsher punishment for a high BAC.
Some states raise a DUI/DWI charge to a felony if the driver causes bodily harm to another. Sometimes, prosecutors have the discretion to decide whether to prosecute a DUI/DWI case involving bodily injury as a misdemeanor or a felony. In some states, like California, prosecutors must also demonstrate that the person charged with DUI/DWI caused that injury in question. If another driver runs into the intoxicated driver while stopped at a stop sign and suffers injuries, then the intoxicated driver didn't cause the bodily harm and the DUI/DWI charge will remain a misdemeanor.
States generally will charge an intoxicated driver with felony DUI if the driver has multiple prior convictions for the offense within a certain period of time. The number of prior convictions and the time period vary between states but some states, such as New York, will charge a person with felony DUI if he or she has just one prior conviction for any DUI/DWI crime within the past ten years.
Children in the Vehicle
Many states have passed laws that make driving while under the influence with children in the vehicle a felony. A recent high-profile example of this is Leandra's Law in New York. The law passed after an 11 year-old girl died when her friend's mother crashed her car while driving under the influence. Leandra's Law applies when a child of 15 years or younger is present but be sure to check your own state's law since the ages that trigger the law can vary.
DUI/DWI while Driving on a Restricted, Suspended or Revoked License
Many states make a DUI/DWI offense a felony if it occurs while the offender had a restricted, suspended or revoked license. Illinois, for example, makes this crime a Class 4 felony punishable by 1-3 years in state prison.
Consult an Experienced DUI Attorney
If you or a loved one are arrested for DUI, you may need an experienced DUI lawyer. A skilled attorney who specializes in defending DUI cases will evaluate all the evidence, including the procedure and results of any field sobriety and chemical tests, to ensure that your legal rights are protected. Plus it's important to speak to a lawyer familiar with the laws in your jurisdiction. Most offer free consultations, so your first step should be to contact an experienced DUI attorney.