What Makes DUI Cases Felonies or Misdemeanors?

If you find yourself facing a charge of driving under the influence, known as DUI, you will, of course, have many questions as you deal with police and prosecutors. For many people, the first question on their mind is whether the charges against them will be considered a felony or misdemeanor. Contrary to the popular belief that all DUI charges are automatic felonies, the fact is most DUI charges are considered misdemeanors in virtually all states. However, since no two DUI cases are exactly alike, various circumstances, involving what occurred leading up to the DUI arrest as well as whether or not you have a prior criminal record of previous DUI convictions, can impact the seriousness of the charges.

If you need to learn more about the key differences between a felony and misdemeanor DUI and why a criminal defense lawyer is so important in these situations, here are some crucial details to remember.

First-time Offenses

In virtually all states, a driver is considered to be under the influence of alcohol if their blood-alcohol content (BAC) is .08 or higher. If you are pulled over by a police officer and found to have this high of a BAC, you will be arrested for DUI. Fortunately, if it is your first time to be arrested for DUI and you were not involved in an accident that led to injuries or fatalities, chances are your initial DUI arrest will be considered a misdemeanor. In many states, a second DUI offense will also be considered a misdemeanor, so long as there were, again, no injuries or fatalities associated with the arrest. 

Since courts across the nation are overbooked with various types of cases, having an experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer working for you, who specializes in DUI cases, can be of tremendous benefit.

Felony DUI

While your first or even second DUI arrest will likely be a misdemeanor, and beyond that will probably be elevated to felony-level charges. If this occurs, you will definitely need an experienced defense attorney on your side, since you will be facing more serious penalties, including the possibility of going to prison for an extended sentence. 

In addition, should your DUI arrest, regardless of whether it is your first, second, or beyond, resulting in serious injuries or fatalities to others, prosecutors will push hard for felony charges and maximum punishments. However, by having an experienced defense attorney handling your case, it may be possible to get the charges reduced or strike a plea deal with prosecutors, helping you avoid a much harsher punishment.

Right to Trial

Even if you are facing a misdemeanor DUI charge, you do have the right to a trial if you so desire. This can involve either a jury or a bench trial with only a judge, and can have some advantages, depending upon the circumstances of your case. For example, if you and your attorney believe the breathalyzer used to test your BAC was not working properly, having a trial will allow your attorney to present evidence supporting this claim. In addition, if you believe the police violated your Constitutional rights or other laws by pulling you over and arresting you for DUI, your attorney can argue these points as well. While having a trial will likely lengthen the time it will take to resolve your case, it can be worth it if it means being able to clear your name.

Misdemeanor Punishments

If facing misdemeanor DUI charges, the punishments will not be as extreme as those for felony DUI. However, they will still be stiff and life-altering. For most misdemeanors, you will be facing various levels of fines and possibly as much as one year in a local jail. In addition, you may face the loss of a professional license, suspension of your driver’s license, an inability to obtain a firearm permit and be unable to work at certain jobs.

Felony Punishments

If you think punishments for misdemeanor DUI charges are rough, those for felony DUI are much harsher. Along with some of the above-mentioned punishments such as loss of your driver’s license and difficulty finding a job, you will also face fines that could be many thousands of dollars, be ordered to pay restitution to victims or their families, and face a prison sentence of possibly decades if the court feels it is justified. Along with this, you will be a convicted felon, meaning you may lose your right to vote, own a firearm, adopt a child, or even have difficulty obtaining a job or suitable housing. Thus, if you are facing a felony DUI charge, do everything possible to hire a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in DUI cases and has a track record of success negotiating deals for clients.

District Attorney Discretion

Even in the most serious of DUI cases, the good news for you as the defendant is the District Attorney always has some level of discretion as to how cases can be handled. This can be used to your advantage, since court dockets are full of cases that prosecutors are eager to resolve as fast as possible. By hiring a skilled DUI defense attorney who is familiar with the local DA, police, and courts, you and your lawyer may be able to strike a plea agreement that may help you avoid jail time and also reduce or eliminate the chance your driver’s license will be suspended or revoked.

Though it is, of course, best to never get behind the wheel of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, doing so does not automatically mean your life will be forever ruined. Should you find yourself facing a DUI charge, do not panic. If you can stay calm from start to finish and put your fate in the hands of an experienced DUI defense attorney, the results may be better than you ever thought possible. By working with your attorney and showing the court you are sorry for your actions, you may be able to avoid the most severe legal repercussions.