Understanding the difference between a misdemeanor and felony DUI conviction is important due to the impact on one’s rights. In simple terms, a misdemeanor can be called a minor criminal offense while a felony is a serious criminal offense which results in the loss of important civil rights such as the right to vote, own a firearm, obtain certain employment and benefits, etc.
In Washington State, generally the first four DUI convictions within a ten year period are classified as a gross misdemeanor. While the penalties for each additional DUI conviction increases, the classification for DUI remains a gross misdemeanor until one is convicted for a fifth DUI offense within a ten year period. If however one has a prior conviction for either vehicular homicide or vehicular assault which occurred while one was under the influence of alcohol or drugs then any subsequent conviction on a DUI charge will constitute a felony offense.
It is important to note that for purposes of determining the date of one’s prior DUI conviction, the date or arrest rather than the date of conviction is what is considered. So, if one was for instance, was arrested for DUI on January 1, 2014 and convicted for the offense on May 15, 2014, the time for the prior is recorded as January 1, 2014 which is the date of arrest.
The distinction between a misdemeanor and felony DUI offense in Washington State is provided for in the general DUI statute under RCW 46.61.502. One will be charged with felony DUI under the following circumstances:
- If one is charged with their fifth DUI offense within a ten year period
- If one has a prior conviction for vehicular homicide while driving under the influence
- If one has a prior conviction for vehicular assault while driving under the influence
In a previous blog post, I stated that the United States has some of the most lenient DUI laws in the world (See http://www.duilawfirmwa.com/dui-law-u-s-permits-one-road-3). Within the United States, Washington State arguably has the nation’s most lenient DUI laws where being charged with felony DUI is indicative of an extensive history of drinking and driving. According to MADD, with the exception of Washington State, no other state allows up to four prior DUI convictions before charging one with felony DUI (See http://www.madd.org/laws/law-overview/DUI_Felony_Overview.pdf). Some states only allow a single prior DUI conviction before charging one with felony DUI. Proponents of tougher DUI laws in Washington State wanted the law amended to mandate a felony conviction after three rather than four prior DUIs, but their attempt failed when Senate Bill 6090 died in the state House of Representatives (See Senate Bill 6090 at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=6090).
DUI law, like other areas of law, undergoes periodic change. However, because DUI law falls under criminal law, it receives considerable attention from victims’ advocacy groups who put considerable pressure on our elected representatives to make laws stricter with increased penalties and politicians are especially eager to oblige so that they can claim credit for being “tough on crime”. Therefore one should expect that any further amendment of DUI law will probably include stricter penalties such as allowing for fewer priors before the felony classification kicks in.