What Distinguishes a Felony DUI from a Misdemeanor DUI

Picture of Attorney Thomas Nicholas Cvietkovich

Last week, many community members in Bakersfield, California, were incredulous after the local district attorney announced that a high-profile case would not include charges of felony driving under the influence of alcohol. The suspect had supposedly been legally intoxicated when his vehicle hit and killed a bicyclist. However, he is being charged with the lesser misdemeanor DUI. The case illustrates the intricacies when deciding between misdemeanor DUI and felony DUI charges in California. Felony charges may require proving negligence and causation, as well as intoxication.

Misdemeanor vs. Felony

Misdemeanor DUI charges commonly occur when a defendant is suspected of being intoxicated after a routine traffic stop. A person can have as many as four DUI convictions within a 10-year period before facing felony DUI charges. However, a DUI charge can be upgraded to a felony if someone is injured or killed as a result of the DUI. There are several types of felony DUI charges involving injury or death:

  • DUI Causing Injury;
  • Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated;
  • Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated; and
  • DUI Second Degree Murder, which involves intended malice.

DUI Causing Injury and Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated can be misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the circumstances. Felony convictions result in mandatory prison sentences and hefty fines.

Determining Fault

A person can be convicted on DUI charges but not be held responsible for a person’s injury or death during the incident. When charging someone with DUI involving injury or death, the prosecution must prove that:

  • The suspect was legally intoxicated while operating the vehicle;
  • The suspect violated a traffic law or acted negligently; and
  • Said violation or negligence caused the injury or death.

Proving that a driver was intoxicated does not automatically mean that he or she caused the accident. A defendant can argue that:

  • The victim was negligent;
  • Another party was responsible; or
  • Adverse road conditions made the accident unavoidable.

In the recent Bakersfield case, the victim allegedly was riding her bicycle at night across a busy street without a light and wearing dark clothing. The prosecution also said it lacks evidence that the defendant committed any driving violations other than being intoxicated. Thus, there may not be grounds for a vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated charge.

DUI Defense Lawyer

It is more common for DUI incidents involving injury or death to result in felony charges. A San Jose DUI defense attorney at the Law Offices of Thomas Nicholas Cvietkovich can examine your case to determine your best course for defense. To schedule a free consultation, call (408) 898-9653.



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