DWI (driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol) charges can either be misdemeanors, or felonies. What's the difference between the two? Generally, the penalties for a misdemeanor are less harsh in terms of fines and potential jail time than they are for a felony. Whether you'll be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony DWI usually depends on the circumstances. The way that you're charged is usually determined by the circumstances of the situation.
While the laws vary from state to state, here's how a DWI can quickly go from a misdemeanor to a felony.
1) You're extremely intoxicated.
The laws in some states, like Kentucky and Ohio, draw a line between a little bit drunk and a lot drunk, and increase the penalties accordingly. These are called "enhanced penalty" laws and are based on your blood alcohol content level at the time of your arrest. While 0.08% BAC is legally drunk in all states, you can generally expect enhanced penalty laws to kick in around 0.15% BAC or higher.
2) You have children in your car.
Various states have laws that enhance penalties for DWI offenses when children are passengers in your vehicle. Alabama, for example, doubles the minimum penalty if a child under the age of 14 is in the car.
3) You have previous DWI offenses.
The severity of DWI penalties often increases with each subsequent conviction. In Hawaii, for example, the first offense will cost you a suspended license for 3 months. A second offense results in a suspended license for 1 year and mandatory jail time.
4) You are driving on a suspended, revoked, or restricted license.
If you are caught driving drunk while your license is already suspended, revoked, or restricted for work purposes only, some states automatically increase the charge to a felony. In some states, penalties automatically include jail time in state prison. Illinois, for example, requires a 1–3 year prison term. If your license was suspended or revoked for some reason unrelated to drunk driving (unpaid parking tickets, for example), some states will take that into consideration, but others won't.
5) You cause an accident that results in serious injury or death.
Even if it is your first DWI, the charge can become a felony if someone was injured or killed. Prosecutors in most states have wide discretionary powers to raise charges to the felony level in those situations.
A felony DWI conviction can haunt you the rest of your life—even if it is your only offense. If you've been charged with drunk-driving, speak to an attorney who specializes in DWI defense. Your DWI attorney will be able to advise you about the best way to proceed in your case.
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