Is a DUI a Felony? Lawyer Explains When is DUI a Felony

Is a DUI a criminal offense? Yes, drunken driving or drugged driving is a criminal offense. The United States, though, is the world's only nation that lacks a single, uniform traffic violation for a DUI-DWI charge.

Plus, for the adult legal limit of alcohol permitted in a person's system (ages 21 and older) and the underage “zero-tolerance” laws, no uniformity exists for a single, fixed “number.” The federal government has set a “high” number, for each (0.08 grams percent for those aged 21 and over) and 0.02 grams % for those under age 21.

Although the State of Wisconsin calls its first OWI offense a civil matter, it is punished like a crime, with the possible exception of jail time. All other states readily categorize driving under the influence (DUI) in GA and roughly 34 more states, driving while intoxicated (DWI) in TX or driving while impaired (DWI) in about 7 more states, as a misdemeanor or felony crimes, depending on the respective states’ laws.

Jail CellThousands of times each week, online searchers query Google or another directory with questions such as these 8 different ways to ask the same general question:

  • Is a DUI a felony?
  • Is a DUI considered a felony?
  • Is a D.U.I. a crime?
  • Is drunk driving a felony?
  • How many DUIs is a felony?
  • Is drinking and driving a felony?
  • Is D.W.I. a felony?
  • Is DUI considered a crime?

Absent a motor vehicle wreck with serious bodily injury or death, or possibly being an impaired driver with one or more underage children in your vehicle, a person who is convicted of driving while under the influence for their first offense DUI, will be charged with a misdemeanor. Statistically, over 95% of all DWI-DUI arrests made in the USA are misdemeanors each year.

Drunk Driving Word Board

But, depending upon state laws where you are driving, various more serious situations may arise in crashes or when child passengers are put in harm’s way when the driver is rendered less safe to drive due to consuming alcohol or drugs.

When State laws call for felony charges and the motor vehicle offense is being charged as a felony crime, the stakes for that driver become much larger. Because alcohol consumption in America is widespread, driving intoxicated is one of the most common threats to many professional and other arrestees who are in high-income positions.

By way of one quick example, most states regulate professional licensing for doctors, nurses, chiropractors, nurse anesthetists, and various state-licensed counselor positions. Conviction of a felony offense can terminate that ability for that highly paid professional.

Is a DUI a Felony or Misdemeanor?

So, it is possible (in some circumstances) to be found guilty of a DUI as a misdemeanor or felony offense. Generally, though, a first DUI offense is accused as a misdemeanor crime.

DUI Felony vs Misdemeanor

Usually, the availability of a "scheduled" bond amount, or any small bond amount (to get released from jail) will point to the level of severity. Bonds under $3,000 are usually for a misdemeanor crime, and higher bonds (or not being given a bond until a judge approves it) could signal a felony prosecution.

However, if someone is injured or killed by a DUI driver, it will likely be accused as a felony, even if it is the first offense. Prior DUI convictions can also raise the charge to a felony. Only Maryland, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia lack a felony DWI law for repeat offenders.

In some states (e.g., SC, MI), a DUI is a felony for a third or subsequent conviction, or if the driver had a high BAC or was driving with children. About 20 other states (including GA) cling to the 4th DUI-DWI being a felony.

Three states have enacted 2 nd offense felony laws but have set up special “timing” circumstances for triggering felony prosecution like the prior had to be within 5 years (in Indiana) or 10 years of the first DWI-OWI (for New York or Oklahoma). A fourth state, Minnesota, has a special set of factors that might allow a 2 nd DWI defendant to be prosecuted as a felony offender.

What’s the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and Felony DUI?

The consequences of getting convicted for driving and being under the influence can be serious. In states like Maine (e.g., 0.150 gr. % or higher), New Jersey, South Carolina e.g., 0.16 grams % or higher), Michigan (0.170 grams percent or higher) and Arizona, high BAC levels can bring mandatory jail sentences, even on a first-lifetime offense.

First Offense DUIDepending on whether an offense is classified as a misdemeanor or a felony. is usually when higher jail terms can be expected. Generally, 1st offense misdemeanors will have a jail sentence of one to three days to as much as one year behind bars, plus any fines and surcharges that can top $2000.

However, felony DUI convictions typically call for a year or more in prison, plus the requirement for substantial fines and longer driver’s license suspension or revocation periods.

In some states, any felony conviction (like a felony DUI-OWI conviction) takes away voting rights or can disqualify a person from holding public office. In addition, many religious organizations that allow parents to volunteer for duty (e.g., a Sunday school teacher) are often subjected to background checks, and a convicted felon (or anyone with a criminal record) will not be allowed to volunteer.

Also, when state laws criminalizing driving impaired were originally enacted, most had a “lookback” or “washout” period of 5, 7, ten years, or 15 years. This meant that repeat offenders who were convicted but got past the state’s lookback period were then considered first offenders again and would no longer face a felony DWI-OUI crime, despite multiple prior similar crimes.


Ignition Interlock InstallationToday, the national trend is to make drunk driving convictions “lifetime” look-back periods. In addition, due to the urging of N.H.T.S.A., even a first offender in 2023 who gets convicted is likely to be required to use ignition interlocks on any vehicles driven by that 1st offender. The prevalence of states mandating the use of an ignition interlock device has occurred within the last two decades.