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Is Drunk Driving A Misdemeanor Or Felony In California?

The majority of all DUI cases in California are filed as misdemeanors. Some are filed as felonies.

What is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony? The California Penal Code Section 17 states, “A felony is a crime which is punishable with death or by imprisonment in the state prison. Every other crime or public offense is a misdemeanor except those offenses that are classified as infractions.”

There is more of a stigma and the punishment is greater for those accused and convicted of a felony rather than a misdemeanor. Usually felony punishments require a sentence of a year or more in a state prison. Misdemeanor convictions carry the possibility of a year or less in the county jail.

As for drunk driving cases, most often first, second, and third DUI’s are charged as misdemeanors. However, if there are aggravating factors, the charges may be raised to a felony. For instance, if the DUI caused injury or death of another, the defendant has three or more prior DUI’s or wet reckless convictions within ten years, or the defendant has a prior felony DUI conviction, the new case will often be charged as a felony.

If the DUI caused injury or death to another, the driver may be charged with either: 1.) Driving under the influence causing injury under California Vehicle Code Section 23153; 2.) Vehicular manslaughter under California Penal Code Sections 191.5 and 192; or, 3.) Murder under Penal Code Section 187. The charges usually depend on the seriousness of the injury.

If the defendant has been convicted of three or more DUI’s and/or wet reckless offenses, the new case may be charged as a felony. This would include any out-of-state convictions that are equivalent to a California DUI.

If the defendant has a prior felony drunk driving conviction and then picks up another DUI, regardless that it would normally be charged as a misdemeanor, the new case can be charged as a felony.

Cases which may be charged as a misdemeanor or felony are called “wobblers.” The prosecutor has discretion to decide how to charge a particular matter; however, an experienced drunk driving defense attorney may be able to negotiate a plea agreement where the defendant pleads to a reduced misdemeanor charge. If the prosecutor refuses such an offer, a skilled DUI defense attorney may motion the trial court to reduce the felony to a misdemeanor.


If you have a felony DUI case pending against you, speak to The Law Offices of Susan L. Hartman about your defense today. A skilled DUI defense attorney may be able to negotiate a plea bargain that reduces the felony to a misdemeanor drunk driving charge. Call 619-260-1122 or fill out the “Contact Us” form on this page for a free telephone consultation.