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Is a DUI a felony or a misdemeanor?

This article explains when a DUI is a felony vs. a misdemeanor and key things to know about state DUI laws.

evident Editorial Team
July 4, 2023
Drinking, driving, dui

Navigating the world of DUI laws can be daunting, particularly when you're confronted with terms like "misdemeanor" and "felony." Understanding these concepts is crucial, especially when the question "Is a DUI a felony or misdemeanor?" comes into play. This fundamental distinction carries significant implications that can impact an individual's future, employment prospects, and personal life. 

This article will guide you through the nuances of misdemeanor and felony DUI charges, aiming to provide a clear, comprehensive understanding of these concepts. Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge to make informed decisions if you or a loved one is facing such charges. However, remember that while this guide serves as a primer, it's no substitute for legal advice from a DUI law firm or experienced criminal defense attorneys. Always consult a professional when dealing with legal matters.

Key Takeaways

What is a DUI?

Driving under the influence (DUI), or drunk driving, is a criminal offense when an individual operates a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol, drugs, or both. It is measured by the driver's blood alcohol content (BAC). In all 50 states, the legal BAC limit is 0.08% for drivers aged 21 and over. For drivers under 21, any amount of alcohol can lead to a DUI charge due to zero-tolerance laws.

DUI may also apply to impairment by substances other than alcohol, including illegal drugs and prescription medications. Regardless of the substance causing impairment, a DUI charge can have serious consequences. The specific penalties vary greatly depending on numerous factors, including the driver's BAC, prior DUI convictions, and whether the DUI event led to property damage, injuries, or fatalities.

What is a Misdemeanor DUI?

A misdemeanor DUI typically refers to a driving under the influence charge that does not involve aggravating factors, such as prior convictions or harm to others.

In many jurisdictions, a first offense DUI or sometimes even second DUI offense, where no one else is injured or killed, is classified as a misdemeanor. However, the classification can vary based on the state's specific DUI laws and the driver's blood alcohol content at the time of arrest.

While misdemeanor conviction is less severe than felony DUI conviction, they still carry substantial consequences:

  • Fines: These often range from several hundred to a few thousand dollars.
  • Jail Time: While possible, many first-time offenders may receive probation instead.
  • Probation: This can last up to one year.
  • License Suspension: This generally lasts for a few months to a year.
  • DUI Education Programs: These are often mandatory for convicted drivers.

Remember, even a misdemeanor DUI can have lasting effects. It will appear on criminal background checks, impacting future employment opportunities. Your car insurance rates will likely increase significantly after a DUI conviction. Consult with a knowledgeable DUI lawyer to understand the potential penalties in your specific situation.

What is a Felony DUI?

A felony DUI, or felony DWI, is a more severe charge that typically comes into play when certain aggravating factors occur during a DUI incident.

crash, car, car crash

These factors can include multiple prior DUI convictions, reckless driving causing bodily harm or death to another person, having a minor in the vehicle, or having a particularly high blood alcohol content at the time of arrest. The specific criteria that elevate a DUI to a felony level vary by state.

The DUI felony penalties are more severe than those for a misdemeanor. They often include:

  • Fines: These can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Prison: Sentences can range from one year to several years.
  • License Suspension: This can last several years, and in some cases, it can be permanent.
  • DUI Education Programs: Felony offenders may also be required to attend these programs.
  • Additional Consequences: These can include the loss of certain civil rights, like the right to vote or possess firearms.

In addition to these legal consequences, a felony DUI conviction can have serious personal ramifications. It can result in loss of voting rights, inability to possess firearms, and difficulty securing employment or housing. These impacts underline the importance of securing experienced legal representation when facing potential felony DUI charges. (And check out our article about aggravated DUIs for more info on those offenses).

Impact on Driver's License

steering wheel, seat, wheel

One of the immediate and most impactful consequences of a DUI conviction is its effect on your driving privileges. Whether a misdemeanor or felony, a DUI conviction typically leads to a suspension of your driver's license.

For a misdemeanor DUI, the suspension period can range from a few months to a year, depending on state laws and whether it's a first-time offense. In some cases, restricted driving privileges may be granted for necessary travel, such as to work or school.

For a felony DUI, license suspension can last several years or, in extreme cases, result in a permanent revocation. Some states implement an "ignition interlock device" program, which requires the driver to pass a breathalyzer test before the car starts.

Remember, driving with a suspended license is another serious offense that can lead to additional fines, jail time, and extended suspension periods. Always consult with a DUI attorney to understand the potential implications for your driving privileges.

Why Legal Representation is Crucial

Whether you're facing a misdemeanor or felony DUI charge, securing legal representation from an experienced attorney is crucial. These legal professionals have in-depth knowledge of DUI laws, legal procedures, and the nuances of the court system, enabling them to guide you effectively through the legal process.

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DUI attorneys can help in several ways. They can examine the details of your arrest to ensure law enforcement officers follow all necessary protocols. They can challenge the accuracy of a breathalyzer or other testing methods used to determine your blood alcohol content. They can also negotiate plea deals or fight for reduced charges, particularly in cases where the DUI is a first offense or if there are mitigating circumstances.

Facing a DUI charge can be a daunting and confusing experience. Having a knowledgeable and experienced DUI lawyer by your side can make a significant difference in the outcome of your case.

FAQs about DUIs

Is a DUI a felony in CA?

In California, a DUI can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the case's circumstances.

hollywood sign, los angeles, hollywood

Typically, a first, second, or third DUI offense without aggravating factors will be considered a misdemeanor. However, a fourth DUI offense within ten years, a DUI causing injury, or a DUI following a previous felony DUI conviction can be charged as a felony.

Penalties for a felony DUI in California include imprisonment, hefty fines, mandatory DUI education programs, and a lengthy license suspension.

How bad is a DUI in Texas?

In Texas, the severity of a DUI depends on several factors.

texas, usa, united states

A first offense is typically considered a Class B misdemeanor, resulting in fines up to $2,000, a jail sentence of up to 180 days, and a license suspension for up to a year. If aggravating factors are present, such as a high BAC or a minor in the car, a DUI can be elevated to a felony with more severe penalties.

An experienced DUI lawyer can help you understand Texas's specific charges and potential consequences.

What degree of misdemeanor is a DUI in Florida?

In Florida, a first or second DUI without aggravating factors is typically considered a first-degree misdemeanor.

miami beach, ocean, bridge

Penalties for a first-degree misdemeanor DUI can include a fine of up to $1,000, up to six months in jail, mandatory DUI school, community service, and a license suspension. A DUI involving certain aggravating factors like a high BAC or minor passengers could be elevated to a felony with more severe penalties.

It's advisable to consult a Florida DUI attorney to understand the specifics of your case.

What happens to first-time DUI offenders in Illinois?

First-time DUI offenders in Illinois typically face misdemeanor charges unless aggravating factors exist.

city, urban, buildings

Consequences include a fine of up to $2,500, up to one year in jail, mandatory participation in a DUI education program, and a minimum one-year license suspension. However, first-time offenders may be eligible for court supervision, which can prevent a DUI conviction from going on their permanent record if all court requirements are met.

It's essential to seek advice from an experienced DUI attorney in Illinois to explore all available options.

The Bottom Line

Understanding the distinctions between a misdemeanor and felony DUI is critical when facing a DUI charge. These classifications have significant implications on the penalties you may face, including fines, jail or prison time, mandatory DUI education programs, and the suspension of your driver's license. 

Whether you're dealing with a misdemeanor or felony DUI, it's always recommended to seek the guidance of an experienced DUI attorney. They can provide valuable insights into your case, evaluate the circumstances of your arrest, and help mitigate the consequences. 

Stay safe, make responsible decisions, and know your rights regarding DUI charges.