Under most circumstances, driving under the influence (DUI) in California will result in misdemeanor charges being filed against you. Most of the 200,000 people arrested for DUI will be charged with a misdemeanor offense.
These are the many people pulled over by a police officer who subsequently smelled alcohol on their breath and conducted a DUI investigation. Under California law, a person is intoxicated if they are driving a vehicle with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or greater.
As long as there are no factors that would result in enhanced charges, a person would most likely face nothing more than a misdemeanor charge for their first, second and even their third DUI. However, if you have had three DUI convictions within the ten year look back period from the initial arrest, you will be facing California felony DUI charges with your fourth DUI arrest.
If your DUI resulted in injury or death to another person you will face felony DUI charges. The injury can be to a passenger in your vehicle, the driver or passenger in another vehicle or a pedestrian. A DUI with injury is sometimes referred to as a “wobbler” because it can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the extent of the injury and the county of the arrest.
If your DUI resulted in the death of someone you will be charged with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, which is a felony. In these cases, the death will be said to have been caused by ordinary or gross negligence of the intoxicated driver.
If the circumstances surrounding the death of another person while you were drunk are egregious enough, you can be charged with second degree murder. In these cases the death will be said to have been caused by malice or malice aforethought — a conscious disregard for human life. These charges are by far the most severe and are filed against repeat DUI offenders. They are called “Watson murders” because of a 1981 California Supreme Court case that allowed for the crime of second degree murder for repeat drunk drivers who cause a death. Everyone convicted of a DUI in California has to sign or acknowledge being given a Watson advertisement. That acknowledgement essentially states that you acknowledge how dangerous it is to drive under the influence and agree to be charged with murder in California if you kill someone while driving under the influence.
Finally, it is also possible for you to be charged with a felony DUI, for even a simple misdemeanor DUI arrest, if you have a prior felony DUI conviction. So, even a simple misdemeanor DUI arrest with no aggravating circumstances will escalate to a felony if you have had a prior felony DUI.
A felony DUI with bodily injury comes with stiff penalties, such as two to four years in a California State Prison, fines of up to $5,000, mandated 30 month DUI school and a driver’s license suspension of five years. You will also be designated as a habitual traffic offender (HTO) for three years.
A vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated will result in fines of up to $10,000 and up to four years in a California State Prison. The facts surrounding your arrest may cause the punishment to escalate. A gross vehicular manslaughter conviction will result in four to ten years in prison. If you are charged with gross vehicular manslaughter and have two or more prior DUI convictions, you could face 15 years to life in prison.