What Happens when a DUI Causes Injury to Someone?

Typically, a California DUI of either alcohol or marijuana is charged as a misdemeanor when the DUI does not involve injuries to anyone other than the driver. Given the fact that alcohol impairs a person’s ability to operate a vehicle safely, it is entirely foreseeable and often the case that a person’s drunk driving leads to injuries of someone else. When a DUI causes injury to someone other than the driver, the DUI may be charged as a felony.

California Vehicle Code section 23153 makes is unlawful for a driver to be under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, or have a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more, engage in an act forbidden by law (typically a traffic violation other than the DUI itself), and the act causes injury to someone other than the driver.

A violation of California Vehicle Code section 23153 is what’s known as a “wobbler.” This means that it can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

If convicted of the misdemeanor 23153 charge, a driver can be sentenced to informal probation for three to five years, serve five days to one year in county jail, pay between $390-$5,000 in fines, attend DUI school, serve a one to three year suspension of their driver’s license, and pay restitution to person or persons injured. A misdemeanor is usually charged when the injuries are minimal.

However, if the injuries are substantial, the prosecutor will likely charge a felony. If a person is convicted of a felony 23153 charge, they can be sentenced to 16 months, two years or four years in a state prison, forced to pay between $1,015-$5,000 in fines, attend DUI school, serve a five year revocation of your driver’s license, and pay restitution to person or persons injured.

What’s more, if the injuries are substantial, which leads to felony charges, prosecutors can and will likely also allege a “great bodily injury” enhancement to the DUI charge. A conviction of the DUI with the enhancement will lead to an additional and consecutive three years in state prison for each additional person injured, and a “strike” on their record under California’s Three Strikes Law.

The Penal Code and California Jury Instruction defines “great bodily injury” as one which is significant or substantial physical injury and one which is more than minor of moderate harm. Needless to say, this doesn’t give much guidance on what is and what isn’t considered great bodily injury. This forces the court to determine which injuries are severe enough to consider “great bodily injury” on a case-by-case basis. However, I can tell you that the courts have interpreted it broadly to include injuries such as broken bones and severe bruising.  

It goes without saying that a California DUI causing injury charge is extremely serious, by far more serious than a California DUI without injury. It may be that the injuries are in fact minor, but in my experience, prosecutors will allege the “great bodily injury” enhancement anyways. It takes a skilled California DUI attorney to argue that injuries were minor and possibly that the DUI with injury charge itself should be a misdemeanor or even dismissed.

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