All DUI arrests carry with them the possibility of jail, or even prison time. Drunk driving can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances. A first-, second-, or third-time DUI is usually a misdemeanor (unless someone other than the driver is injured). If there is an injury to someone other than the driver that is more than trivial (i.e., an injury that requires medical attention), or it is the fourth DUI offense within 10 years (and the ten year period is calculated from arrest date to arrest date), then it can be charged as a California felony DUI. If a driver is DUI and causes an accident resulting in a fatality, that death can be charged as manslaughter or even murder.
However, it would be a significant mistake to think that misdemeanor doesn’t mean jail! By definition, a misdemeanor is a crime that can be punished by a maximum of a year in jail; a felony can be punished by up to a year in jail or a longer term in the state prison.
The possible range of punishment for DUI convictions is:
• First offense DUI: Minimum of no jail up to 6 months in jail;
• 2nd offense DUI: Minimum of 96 hours in jail, maximum of one year in jail;
• Third time DUI: Minimum of 120 days in jail, maximum of one year in jail;
• Fourth time DUI: Minimum of 180 days in jail, maximum of three years in state prison.
For felony DUIs involving injury, the minimum on a first offense is five days in jail, and a maximum of 3 years in state prison, though this can go up if there are multiple injured people. Also, once a driver is convicted of a felony DUI due to causing injury or death, any future DUI is a felony (even if it is a “plain vanilla” type of case, such as pulling into a checkpoint and blowing .08, with no injury at all).
DUI cases resulting in death can result in manslaughter charges that can result in a state prison term of up to 10 years. It is also possible to charge a DUI case that results in a fatality as a murder case under a particular case called Watson. This case basically says that when someone is consciously aware of the inherently dangerous nature of driving under the influence, and disregards this knowledge and someone is killed, then they can be charged with murder. As a result of Watson, whenever someone is convicted of DUI, the judge will specifically give them a special advisement where they are told this, so that if they ever reoffend and someone is killed, they will be charged with murder. This is also why people renewing their driver’s licenses now have to sign a similar acknowledgement.
There is a clear trend towards charging DUI fatalities as murder. As unfortunate as it is whenever someone is killed, this is yet another example of the erosion of legal distinctions based on emotional and political agendas. A DUI death is an unintentional one, and unintentional deaths have historically been charged as manslaughter, not murder. The difference is massive; it is the difference between a very lengthy prison term for manslaughter, and never ever getting out, since murder carries an indeterminate sentence that can mean life in prison.