What is a Felony DUI?

Felonies are the most serious kind of criminal charge, punishable by State prison and major fines. It is no different with a DUI.

In California, a DUI can be filed as a felony by the prosecuting agency. If you’ve been arrested for DUI, it’s important to know what kind of charge you face, and what this means for your case as well as your exposure. But first, you should know the difference between the two types of charges.

The Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor

Felonies and misdemeanors are both criminal charges, but misdemeanors are less serious. In both kinds of cases, you have a right to an attorney to represent you, and you have a right to a trial by jury.

Felonies, however, involve more complex trials and heavier penalties. They also have effects that last long after your case is over. Here is the essential difference:


Jail time – a maximum of 1 year in jail, served in your local county jail.

They may carry additional penalties, such as fines, typically $1,000 or less, plus penalty assessments.  Additionally, you may have to serve probation.


Felonies carry a jail time of 16 months, 2 years, and 3 years in State prison. They may carry a longer prison sentence depending on aggravating factors.  Fines tend to be well in excess of $1,000—often tens of thousands of dollars total for a DUI case. Sentence may include parole as well as probation.

Clearly, facing a felony DUI charge is much more serious—and costly—than a misdemeanor. So how do you know which type of DUI you face?

Three Types of Felony DUI

Whether a DUI is charged as a felony depends on the circumstances. There are generally three situations where a DUI can be charged as a felony:

  1. Someone was injured or killed. If your DUI involved an automobile accident where another person was seriously injured or even killed, it will be charged as a felony. Prosecutors have the option of charging an injury case as a misdemeanor and may do so if the injuries are minor or if there are other mitigating factors.
  2. You have 3 or more prior DUI convictions. If you are arrested for a fourth DUI charge, meaning that you have three prior DUI convictions in the past 10 years, the new DUI will likely be charged as a felony. Note that a previous conviction of “alcohol related reckless driving” (commonly known as a “wet reckless”) will count as prior conviction even though it is not technically a DUI conviction. The prosecutor can choose to charge the new DUI as a misdemeanor, but don’t count on that.
  3. You have a prior felony DUI conviction. Regardless of the above factors, if you have one or more prior felony DUI convictions, a new DUI arrest will be charged as a felony as well. Prosecutors cannot waive this felony charge requirement.

How to Defend a Felony DUI

Felony DUI cases are complex and involve multiple stages at which the charges can be disputed, and the defense has more time to prepare.  An expert DUI defense lawyer will use these stages as opportunities to develop and strengthen the defense of your case.  The goal is to exclude evidence against you and find problems with the prosecution’s case, and perhaps get the felony charged reduced to a misdemeanor.

The penalties for driving under the influence in California can be harsh. But the penalties for a California felony DUI can be devastating.  When a California felony DUI stems from having multiple prior DUI convictions, the punishment varies from case-to-case depending on (1) the facts of your specific case, (2) the level of your blood alcohol or drug concentration and any additional aggravating or mitigating factors.

California felony DUIs that are based on multiple prior convictions or auto accidents resulting in injuries are zealously prosecuted and require an aggressive defense.  It is in your best interest to have an expert DUI defense attorney on your side.