Almost all courts now apply special penalty enhancement against drivers who have caused a traffic accident while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While most driving under the influence cases are charged as simple misdemeanors, when the offense is coupled by injuries caused by an accident, prosecutors will likely file the offence as a felony.
In most jurisdictions, if probation is not granted, a misdemeanor drunk driving offense is punishable by up to one year in county jail. Felony offences however carry much harsher penalties, including state prison terms of one year or more.
Drunk driving cases that can either be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony is known in the language of criminal defense lawyers, as “wobblers.” Under these circumstances, a major objective of the criminal defense lawyer will be to convince the prosecutor to file or re-file the drunk driving case as a misdemeanor rather then a felony.
If there were serious injuries involved, it is likely that the case will be filed as a felony, even if it was the defendant’s first and only criminal offence. In the case of an accident resulting in a death, the drunk driver will likely be facing charges of criminal homicide.
In states like California, for example, a driver who causes the death of another while impaired by either drugs or alcohol, can be facing a prison sentence as long as ten years. If the defendant had a prior criminal record for drunk driving, the law permits the court to sentence the driver up to fifteen years in state prison.
Furthermore, the accident does not have to occur on a public street or highway in order to be criminally actionable. Vehicular homicide can be prosecuted if it happens anywhere, including on private property.
In cases where the defendant has been charged with causing an accident while under the influence of alcohol, the defense attorney will try to prove two very important facts. First, the driver was not sufficiently impaired to be guilty of a drunk driving offence in the first place, and second, even if the driver was impaired, the driver was still not the legal cause of the accident. Successfully proving either one of these defenses can cause your case to be either dismissed or result in a substantial reduction in fines and penalties.
Proving that you were not under the influence within the meaning of the states drunk driving laws usually means proving, that while you had consumed some alcohol, it was not enough to render you so impaired that you could not operate a motor vehicle safely. The prosecutor will usually counter this approach by relying on the arresting officers own observations and testing of the defendant through balance and coordination exercises known as field sobriety tests.
If the defendant was asked to provide either a blood, breathe or urine sample (blood tests are more common in DUI cases involving accidents) then the prosecutor can use the test results as proof of defendant’s impairment. Prosecutors cannot just point to the fact that the defendant had an accident to prove per se that the defendant was drunk at the time the accident occurred. You don’t have to be drunk to cause a traffic accident. Accidents happen all the time and only a small percentage of them actually involve drivers who were under the influence at the time of the accident.
Even if the defendant was shown to be impaired at the time of the accident, it does not necessarily mean the alcohol impairment was the legal cause of the accident. For example, the impaired driver could have been stopped waiting for a red light to turn green while being hit from behind by another vehicle. Yes the defendant was intoxicated, but the intoxication had nothing to do with causing the accident. Normally the prosecutor will have to prove bad driving such as speeding or driving recklessly in order to prove their case against the alleged drunk driver.
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