While most DUI charges in Pennsylvania are misdemeanors, prosecutors can pursue felony charges in some cases. If you are facing a felony charge, you are at risk for substantial penalties, and a conviction could truly impact the rest of your life. But, you could also have strong defenses available—including defenses it may be possible to assert even if you were drunk behind the wheel.
Felony Charges in Pennsylvania DUI Cases
There are several ways that a DUI arrest can lead to a felony charge in Pennsylvania. Broadly speaking, DUI-related felony charges fall into two categories: (i) felony DUI charges for repeat offenders, and (ii) felony charges for DUIs involving accidents. In both types of cases, the potential penalties are far greater than those for an “ordinary” DUI, and a felony DUI conviction can have various collateral consequences as well.
1. Felony DUI Charges for Repeat Offenders
Recent changes to Pennsylvania’s DUI laws make second and subsequent DUI charges felonies in some cases. Specifically, you can face a felony DUI charge in Pennsylvania under the following circumstances:
Third-Time DUI Offenses
A third DUI offense within 10 years is a felony if it involves a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.16% or above (a “Highest Rate” DUI). A third DUI offense within 10 years is also a felony offense if it involves:
- Driving under the influence of drugs or a controlled substance;
- A breath or blood test refusal; or,
- A passenger under the age of 18.
Fourth-Time DUI Offenses
A fourth DUI offense within 10 years is a felony regardless of the circumstances involved. Even if your BAC was just above the legal limit, you can still be charged with a felony under Pennsylvania law if you have three prior DUIs within the past 10 years.
Prior Conviction for Homicide By Vehicle
If you have a prior conviction for homicide by a vehicle on your record, you can face felony charges for a DUI. Similar to a fourth-time offense, your BAC does not matter, and it also does not matter whether your current case involves an accident.
In each of the circumstances discussed above, a DUI is classified as a third-degree felony. Under Pennsylvania law, third-degree felonies carry up to a $15,000 fine and seven years in state prison, and a minimum one-year prison sentence is mandatory in some cases.
2. Felony Charges for DUIs Involving Accidents
Pennsylvania law also allows prosecutors to pursue felony charges in DUI cases involving accidents. Examples of possible felony charges in these cases include:
- Felony DUI with Injury: In Pennsylvania, causing an accident that results in any type of injury while under the influence is a felony offense. Unlike many other states, Pennsylvania does not require “serious” or “great” bodily injury to trigger a felony charge.
- Aggravated Assault by Vehicle While Driving Under the Influence: If you cause an accident that results in serious bodily injury while driving drunk, prosecutors may seek to charge you with aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence. This is a second-degree felony offense under Section 3735.1 of the Pennsylvania Statutes, and a conviction can result in up to a $25,000 fine and 10 years of imprisonment.
- Homicide by Vehicle While Driving Under the Influence: If you cause a fatal accident while driving drunk, you can face a charge for homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence under Section 3735. This is also a second-degree felony in most cases; however, prosecutors can pursue a first-degree felony charge in some circumstances. If charged with a second-degree felony under Section 3735, you will face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of three years. A first-degree felony charge under Section 3735 carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
Possible Defenses in Pennsylvania Felony DUI Cases
Regardless of the circumstances involved in your case, you may have defenses that you can assert in court. Given the potential consequences of a felony conviction, you need to fight your charge (or charges) by all means available. Some examples of possible defenses in Pennsylvania felony DUI cases include:
Inadequate Proof of BAC
One of the ways in which a third-time DUI offense can be elevated to a felony is if it involves a BAC of 0.16% or above. Additionally, regardless of your record, prosecutors must be able to prove that you were impaired in order to secure a conviction in court. If prosecutors do not have adequate, reliable proof of your BAC, you may be able to avoid a conviction entirely.
Unconstitutional Police Misconduct
Another way you may be able to avoid a conviction is by showing that the police engaged in unconstitutional misconduct. For example, if the police stopped you without reasonable suspicion (i.e. if you were profiled), then all of the evidence the police obtained during your DUI stop may be inadmissible in court.
Seeking a Reduced Charge
If it is not possible to avoid a conviction entirely, then it may be in your best interests to seek a reduced charge. For example, it may be possible to reduce an aggravated assault charge to a felony DUI with an injury charge by arguing that the accident did not result in serious injury. This can be a desirable defense strategy in other circumstances as well, but you will want to be certain that seeking a reduced charge is your best option.
These are just examples. There are numerous possible defenses to felony DUI charges in Pennsylvania, and the defenses that are available in your case will depend on the specific facts and charge (or charges) involved. Since the prosecution has the burden of proof, exposing even a single flaw in the government’s case can be enough to prevent a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Schedule a Confidential Initial Consultation with Defense Attorney Brian Fishman
Are you facing a felony DUI case in Pennsylvania? If so, it is extremely important that you speak with an experienced defense attorney as soon as possible. To schedule a confidential consultation with Philadelphia defense attorney Brian Fishman, call 267-758-2228 or tell us how we can contact you online now.