Is a DUI a Felony or a Misdemeanor?

Police officer handcuffing suspect at roadside

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Is driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUI/DWI) a felony or a misdemeanor? In all states except New York, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, a first-time conviction for driving under the influence is a misdemeanor and can result in jail time, significant fines, and the loss of driving privileges.

In most states, repeated DUI offenses—typically, beyond a second—are charged as felonies.

When a DUI Is a Felony

DUI laws vary from state to state, but a few situations commonly result in felonies and other sentence enhancements.

Prior Convictions for DUI

If you've ever had a DUI before, a subsequent offense typically results in a felony. Some states enhance the sentence if you've had a DUI within the past five or 10 years. Others charge a repeated DUI as a felony no matter how long ago the first offense occurred.

What Is a Felony?

A felony is any offense punishable by death or by imprisonment for more than one year.

Bodily Harm

In most states, felony charges are filed if someone is killed or injured by the drunken driver, particularly if the driver is the one who caused the accident.

Besides the legal implications, being intoxicated beyond the legal limit for driving puts your health at risk in many ways, even if you aren't behind the wheel.

For example, if you run a stop sign while intoxicated and hit another vehicle, you may be charged with felony DUI if anyone is injured. However, such a charge would be less likely if somebody else rear-ended you at a stop sign and you were found to be intoxicated.

Driving With a Suspended License or Other Restrictions

In some states, felony charges are likely to be imposed if you get a DUI:

  • While breaking other laws at the same time—for example, speeding or unsafe driving
  • While driving with a license that's already restricted, suspended, or revoked
  • When your vehicle has been fitted with an ignition interlock device because of a prior offense

High Blood-Alcohol Concentration

In all states, the standard for impairment is a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08%. A higher BAC can result in a harsher punishment.

The higher your BAC, the worse the penalty is likely to be.

Child Endangerment

If you're caught driving under the influence with a child in the vehicle, your sentence will be enhanced in many states, even if it's your own child. The enhancement applies for minors under age 18, but age cutoffs vary from state to state.

Refusal to Take a Breath Test

Many states impose harsher penalties if you refuse to take a breath test—for example, immediate revocation of your license or mandatory jail time.

However, authorities must obtain a warrant before ordering you to take a blood or urine test, as the Supreme Court ruled in June 2016. Otherwise, you can refuse these without additional penalties.

Property Damage

If you crash while driving under the influence, your penalties will be greater in most states. For example, you'll be financially liable for property damages. The punishment is even greater if you weren't carrying required auto insurance at the time.

The Consequences of a Felony DUI 

  • Maximum of one-year jail time

  • Fines typically $1,000 or less

  • Possibility of probation

  • Minimum of one-year jail time (often in state prison)

  • Fines excess of $1,000 (even tens of thousands)

  • Possibility of parole and probation

If you're convicted of felony DUI, you'll probably be required to use certain equipment—for example, an ignition interlock device or a continuous monitoring device (SCRAM ankle bracelet). Furthermore, the associated costs will be your responsibility, and this equipment is quite expensive.

Most states require anyone convicted of drunk driving to undergo an alcohol evaluation. A counselor will assess whether your drinking behavior can be considered alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse.

You may be required to enter an alcohol treatment or education program to learn how binge drinking and other problem drinking can affect your health and life.

Penalties become increasingly severe with every misdemeanor DUI you garner, even without felony convictions.

Whether you're charged with a misdemeanor or felony DUI, you might be required to take (and pay for) a driver education course, which runs into the hundreds of dollars.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you know if you’re being charged with a felony DUI or a misdemeanor?

    This depends on the laws of your state concerning blood alcohol levels, first vs. subsequent offenses, etc. Your lawyer will know what your charge is based on communication with the court system.

  • Can someone with a felony DUI get auto insurance?

    Insurance companies essentially bet on risk—and your DUI felony can make you too great of a risk to insure. Even if your DUI was charged as a misdemeanor, you can face high premiums if the company agrees to insure you. Get quotes from many companies; as a last resort, consult your state's DMV to learn about the "assigned risk" pool where you live.

  • Is a DUI a criminal offense when filling out an application?

    This depends on whether an application—for a job, government-issued ID, professional license, government assistance, etc.—asks if you've ever been convicted of a misdemeanor, a felony. or more generally, a crime. If your DUI conviction was a misdemeanor, for example, you don't have to mention it when asked if you've ever committed a felony. However, if the application asks if you've ever been convicted of a crime, you must disclose your DUI conviction.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Criminal status of state drunken driving laws. National Conference of State Legislatures. 2019.

  2. National Conference of State Legislatures. Sanctions for Drunk Driving Accidents Resulting in Serious Injuries and/or Death. 2018.

  3. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Drunk Driving.

  4. National Conference of State Legislatures. State Law Chart: Impaired Driving with a Child in the Vehicle. August 2016.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.