There are three ways to pick up a felony DUI.
- DUI with three prior DUI convictions within 10 years
- DUI with accident where someone is injured or someone dies
- DUI with a prior felony DUI conviction
4th DUI within 10 years
Although a 4th DUI in 10 years is a wobbler, it almost always charged as a felony. Most prosecutor offices have very little sympathy for a defendant who has picked up his 4th DUI in ten years. A felony DUI charge based on prior convictions carries a maximum penalty of three years state prison.
There are a couple of different strategies that can be employed when defending felony DUIs based on the 3 or more prior DUI convictions. Factors that may affect how the case is resolved include whether the prior convictions were out of state, how long ago the prior convictions occurred, whether the defendant was on probation for a DUI, what the defendant’s blood alcohol level is and whether the defendant was properly advised if he pled guilty to any prior DUI charges. Also, the prosecution is not allowed to bring up prior DUI cases if a defendant wants take the case to trial. A jury will have to judge the facts based on this case alone – the jury will not know about the prior DUI convictions. (There are some exceptions to this rule).
DUI with Injury
The most common type of felony DUI is where an accident occurs and someone is injured. The person injured must be someone other than the driver. The accident does not have to involve another car. If the defendant loses control of the car on his own and rolls over or strikes an object, he can be charged with a felony DUI if any of his passengers are injured.
A DUI with injury is a wobbler . The extent of the injuries and the number of people injured are the two biggest factors that determine whether a case will be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Other factors include the defendant’s prior record. Any previous DUI convictions will be viewed negatively by the District Attorney’s office. A DUI with injury carries a maximum penalty of three years state prison.
In order for a defendant to be held liable for a felony DUI, the defendant must have contributed to the accident in some way. For example, if a defendant was driving under the influence and another car hit him, and the other car was entirely at fault, then the defendant would only be charged with a misdemeanor DUI because his actions did not cause the accident. However, if the defendant’s actions were even partially responsible for the accident, then the defendant can be charged with a felony DUI. For example, let’s say a defendant was driving under the influence and drifting into another lane, and then another car that was speeding hit his car. The car that was speeding may have been primarily at fault but since the defendant’s car did drift into the other lane, the defendant was at least partially responsible for the accident, which means the defendant could be charged with a felony DUI if anyone was injured in the accident.
DUI with death, aka “Watson Murder”
If a defendant is driving under the influence and gets into an accident that results in someone’s death, then the defendant can be charged with second-degree murder under the Watson rule. The Watson rule started with the case of People v. Watson, where a DUI defendant, who had prior DUI convictions, had an accident and caused someone’s death. The prosecution proved their case under a theory of implied malice. “Implied malice” basically means that a person is knowingly doing something dangerous to human life. Driving under the influence of alcohol is dangerous to human life and when people drink and drive, they know that it is dangerous to human life. So, if a person continues to drink and drive, they are knowingly doing something dangerous and the District Attorney’s office will prosecute them for the consequences of their actions, i.e. causing someone’s death.
Although any DUI defendant can be charged with a Watsonmurder, most prosecutors only charge second-degree murder in cases where the defendant has a prior DUI conviction. It’s easier for the prosecutor to show that a defendant knew that his behavior was dangerous if they can show he already had a prior DUI conviction. The reasoning behind this is many people who drink and drive don’t realize how dangerous their behavior is. But after their first DUI conviction, most defendants are required to take classes that teach them the dangers of drinking and driving. So, it’s much harder for a second-time offender to claim they didn’t realize the dangers of driving under the influence.
In fact, most counties now have a Watson advisement on the Tahl forms (plea-bargain forms) that the defendant must initial when pleading guilty to a DUI or Wet & Reckless charge. A sample Watson advisement reads as follows:
“I understand that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, impairs my ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Therfore, it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both. If I continue to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, and as a result of my driving, someone is killed, I can be charged with murder.”
When a defendant initials this box, they are making it easier for the prosecution to charge them with murder if they cause someone’s death in a DUI-related accident. The maximum penalty for a Watson murder is 15 years to life.
California Felony DUI Attorney
Felony DUI cases are complicated cases that require a criminal defense attorney that knows all the angles. Furthermore, felony DUIs are treated differently in different counties. You’ll want an attorney that has experience at the local courthouses. With offices in Newport Beach, Riverside, Murrieta, Long Beach and Rancho Cucamonga, Fred Thiagarajah and his team have DUI defense experience in Orange County, Riverside County, Los Angeles County and San Bernadino County.
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