No matter how you look at it, drunk driving is a serious offense. Not only do you face hefty fines, license suspension or revocation, possible imprisonment, and other penalties like ignition interlock devices and alcohol counseling programs—but you put both your life and the lives of others at risk.
Plus, if your conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a felony, you face a whole different world of trouble.
Misdemeanor vs. Felony DUI
Whether your drunk driving offense is classified as a misdemeanor or felony largely depends on your state's laws, which generally are based on the severity of the situation.
While drunk driving is never safe, most misdemeanor convictions are considered basic DUI offenses. Even though driving under the influence always carries serious risks, misdemeanor offenses generally don't involve major consequences such as personal injury or death.
Still, misdemeanor convictions bring nasty penalties and remain on your driving record for a certain period of time (perhaps even forever), depending on your state's laws. Of course, your DUI conviction will appear on your criminal record, too.
The word “felony" has terrible connotations, and for good reason. Typically, a person is convicted of a felony when he or she commits a seriously dangerous or otherwise heinous crime.
States set their own laws regarding when a drunk driving offense is a felony offense, but common examples include:
- The driver's BAC is much higher than the legal limit.
- Whether these BAC percentages qualify for a felony DUI is up to that state's laws; however, be aware that state laws are subject to change.
- There is personal injury or death.
- The driver has prior DUI convictions.
- There was a child in the vehicle.
- Each state sets its own age requirement determining who is considered a child.
- The driver was operating with a restricted, suspended, or revoked driver's license.
- Often, state laws consider whether the license is restricted, suspended, or revoked due to another DUI conviction.
Again, each state sets its own laws regarding felony drunk driving, but the general theme is the same: Felonies are a much more serious crimes and come with much more serious consequences.
Felony DUI Penalties
Typically, felony drunk driving convictions are similar to misdemeanors; however, they're much harsher versions.
Some common felony DUI penalties include:
- Extremely high fines.
- License suspension or revocation.
- You'll also receive points on your driving record.
- Your conviction could stay on your driving record for years or even forever, depending on state laws.
- Depending on the number of DUI convictions you have, your driving privileges might never be restored.
- Ignition interlock device.
- Alcohol and/or drug counseling programs.
- Some states also might require the driver to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, too.
- Lengthy prison sentences.
Again, while these penalties seem similar to misdemeanor penalties, they're much more grueling (i.e. your fines will be higher, your suspension or revocation will be longer, you'll spend more time in jail, etc.).
Keep in mind, a felony DUI conviction makes you a felon, which brings a whole new set of penalties. For example:
- Felons cannot purchase or own firearms in any state.
- Many states don't allow felons to vote.
- Some states do restore voting privileges after all penalty requirements have been met.
- Your car insurance rates will go through the roof (see below).
- You now have a criminal record.
- Often, criminal records make it difficult to find employment or rent property.
- Depending on your state laws and prior criminal history, you might be eligible for record expungement.
As you can see, a felony DUI conviction doesn't just affect your driving privileges; it affects your entire life.
Hiring a DUI Attorney
DUI charges and convictions are serious enough on their own; throw a felony status into the mix, and you're in whole new territory.
Given the severity of a possible (or inevitable) felony DUI, it's probably in your best interest to hire a DUI attorney.
Generally, courts will appoint public defenders to handle a person's case (especially if you can't afford a private attorney); however, if you can afford to hire a lawyer, consider doing so. They are extremely skilled in your state's particular drunk driving laws and can best represent you in court. Because of their experience, they might even be able to limit or decrease some of your penalties.
Drunk Driving & Car Insurance
If a misdemeanor drunk driving conviction affects your car insurance rates (and it does), imagine what kind of havoc a felony DUI will wreak.
With a felony drunk driving conviction, it's likely that:
- Your current car insurance provider drastically increases your rates.
- By how much and for how long depends on your insurer.
- You might be ineligible to renew your policy.
- You'll need to shop around for a new provider to find affordable rates.
Regular car insurance aside, your state probably will require you to file SR-22 and FR-44.
SR-22 & FR-44
Most states require drivers convicted of serious crimes—such as a felony DUI—to file SR-22 or FR-44 forms.
These are not types of car insurance; instead:
- SR-22 proves you meet your state's auto insurance requirements and continue to do so for a specific period of time.
- Most states require SR-22 instead of FR-44.
- FR-44 can require you to buy insurance limits higher than your state's minimum requirements.
- Only a handful of states require FR-44.
Typically, the court informs you about any SR-22 or FR-44 requirements. Check out our guide to SR-22 requirements for details.