Felony DUI Causing Injury

According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, about 10 percent of all crash injuries involve alcohol. If you have been accused of causing one of these injuries, you may face charges under Vehicle Code 23153, otherwise known as “DUI causing injury.”

Compared to a normal driving while intoxicated offense, DUI causing injury can lead to more serious consequences—including a felony conviction. It is therefore in your best interests to defend yourself against these allegations to the best of your ability by working alongside qualified criminal defense attorneys.

Unsure where to turn? Gressley & Donaldson is here to help. This article will explore the nature of felony DUI causing injury charges, including potential penalties, legal defenses, and more.

Are you facing felony DUI charges? Don’t risk your freedom—contact a reputable criminal defense law firm to start building your case and defending your future. Reach out to Gressley & Donaldson online to schedule a case evaluation

California Vehicle Code § 23153: Driving Under the Influence Causing Injuries

California Vehicle Code 23153 states that it is illegal to cause an injury while driving under the influence of an intoxicating substance. This offense involves three key elements:

  1. The driver was under the influence.
  2. The driver committed an unlawful act.
  3. The unlawful act resulted in an injury.

There are two separate offenses under this section. Although VC 23153(a) involves the influence of alcohol, it lacks any requirement to prove that you were above a certain level of intoxication. The only requirement for a 23153(a) conviction is to show that you were unable to drive with the care and caution of a sober person under similar circumstances.

In contrast, 23153(b) specifies a certain level of intoxication. If you have caused an injury with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 percent or higher, you will face charges under this section. However, some drivers are subject to higher standards, including professional motorists. VC 23153(d) states that if you hold a commercial driver’s license (CDL), courts may consider you to be under the influence even if you have a BAC level of just 0.04 percent. Note that this applies to taxi drivers, rideshare drivers, truckers, and many others who drive for a living.

Finally, you can face charges under VC 23153 if you were impaired by drugs or the combined influence of drugs and alcohol. A breath test cannot detect impairment by drugs, but law enforcement officers may still attempt to establish your level of intoxication with various other tests.

Defining “Unlawful Act” Under VC 23153

VC 23153(a) states that you can only face penalties under this section if you carry out an “unlawful act” after driving while impaired, and it is important to understand how California defines these acts. There’s a common misconception is that unlawful acts are equivalent to crimes, but this is not the case.

In the context of VC 23153, an unlawful act could be a very minor traffic infraction. Normally, these traffic infractions are handled by the DMV and not criminal courts, resulting in fines rather than criminal convictions. If the traffic infraction results in a bodily injury while the driver is intoxicated, however, these unlawful acts can lead to criminal consequences. Examples of basic traffic citations include parking illegally, failing to signal before turning, and speeding a few miles per hour over the limit.

Both “unlawful acts” and the “neglect of a duty imposed by law in driving the vehicle” can lead to convictions under VC 23153. This broad definition leaves the door open for a wide range of potential errors behind the wheel, and even the simplest of mistakes can lead to penalties under this section. That being said, legitimate criminal offenses may also lead to charges of DUI causing injury, but you must commit a DUI and a concurrent unlawful act to face charges under this section. The DUI offense alone does not qualify as an unlawful act according to VC 23153.

VC 23153(a) Versus VC 23153(b)

After a traffic accident that results in an injury, a defendant in California may face charges under both VC 23153(a) and VC 23153(b). This strategy gives prosecutors more opportunities to secure a conviction. If they fail to establish that your BAC level was over 0.08 percent, you cannot face charges under VC 23153(b). However, they can still pursue a conviction under VC 23153(a) – as long as they can prove that you were impaired.

Proving DUI Causing Injury VC 23153

Prosecutors in California must establish the following elements to secure a conviction under VC 23153. They must establish these factors exist “beyond reasonable doubt,” which means that even a small degree of uncertainty could help you avoid penalties.

  • You were driving a vehicle at the time of the incident.
  • You were under the influence of an intoxicating substance at the time of the incident.
  • You committed some kind of unlawful act or neglected a legal duty while driving.
  • This unlawful act or neglect led directly to a traffic accident of some kind.
  • This traffic accident caused someone to suffer legitimate injuries.

The prosecutor must prove the existence of all these elements to secure a conviction, and the absence of even a single element makes a DUI conviction under VC 23153 impossible. However, if the prosecutor fails to establish all five of these elements, you may still face additional penalties for related offenses, such as driving while intoxicated.

Defining “Proximate Cause”

Prosecutors must also establish something called “proximate cause” to satisfy the requirements of VC 23153. Simply put, proximate cause is when one thing leads to another. You cannot face penalties under VC 23153 if your unlawful act did not “proximately cause” the injury in question. Indirect causal links may not satisfy this requirement.

Common Defenses to VC 23153 Charges

Your criminal defense lawyer can challenge all five of the elements necessary for a VC 23153 conviction. Each one of these challenges represents a potentially effective defense strategy, and you may employ more than one of these strategies in the same case. To determine the most appropriate defense strategy, consider discussing your unique circumstances with a qualified defense attorney. 

You Weren’t Under the Influence

If you were not under the influence of an intoxicating substance at the time of the alleged traffic incident, you cannot face penalties under VC 23153. You may employ various strategies to establish that your driving was in no way impaired by an intoxicating substance, and the exact method may depend on various factors. These factors include the type of substance you are accused of consuming, whether you consented to various tests, and the types of tests you took.

Some test results are easier to challenge than others. Field Sobriety Tests (FSTs) are notoriously subjective, as they require officers to use their own judgment to determine levels of impairment. Common FST tasks include balancing on one leg, reciting the alphabet backward, and walking in a straight line. The officer might note their observations of glazed eyes, slurred speech, or the scent of alcohol. Officers make mistakes, and they are not medical experts. A qualified DUI defense attorney can challenge virtually every aspect of these potentially unreliable tests.

Breathalyzer tests frequently play a central role in DUI-related offenses, but these tests may also be inaccurate due to human errors, mechanical malfunctions, or a combination of both. Police officers require extensive training to use these sensitive devices, and even a slight mistake can lead to inaccurate results. It is particularly important to properly calibrate equipment before testing. In addition, various non-alcoholic (and perfectly legal) substances can trigger positive results. For example, someone who recently used mouthwash may record a reading of over 0.08 percent, despite consuming no alcohol.

In the absence of a clear BAC result, you may still face charges under VC 23153(a). In this case, prosecutors will need to establish that your driving was notably impaired. This can be quite challenging, and you can highlight the fact that you were driving in the same manner as a normal, sober individual when the accident occurred. Proving impairment may be particularly challenging if you are accused of consuming marijuana before the crash.

Breath Test & Blood Alcohol Problems

It is common in driving under the influence injury cases, it is common for breath test and blood test problems to arise. One common problem is that, due to an accident, the police were unable to question you because you were transported to a hospital. If the police were unable to question you, this can create problems for the prosecution in proving that the breath test results or blood test results reflect your blood alcohol level at the time of driving. This is especially significant in felony DUI cases with marginal BAC results.

Additionally, many labs that analyze chemical tests following a drunk driving accident use antiquated methods for blood alcohol content analysis, such as single column gas chromatography. These labs are using BAC analysis technology that the scientific community moved on from nearly two decades ago.

Lastly, if breath tests were administered, it is important to analyze whether such breath tests were administered in compliance with Title 17 of the California Code of Regulations, and whether the particular breath test device was maintained in compliance with Title 17 of the California Code of Regulations. Failure to administer and maintain a breath test device is an important drunk driving defense, especially in felony DUI cases.

No Injury Occurred

If you establish that no injury occurred as a result of your accident, you cannot face charges under this section. The legal definition of an “injury” under California law can be quite elusive, although any physical harm could potentially satisfy this requirement. The California Highway Patrol defines an “injury crash” as involving “severe wounds,” “visible injuries,” or the “complaint of pain.” This implies that an individual only needs to complain of vague pain to satisfy the requirements of VC 23153.

That being said, many crashes cause no real injuries. The victim’s testimony may become very important in this situation, and they may testify that they suffered no harm as a result of the accident. If your attorney sees fit, they can compel the alleged victim to appear on the witness stand during your trial. They will then swear an oath to tell the truth, and they may have no other choice but to admit they were not injured as a result of your crash.

You might also point to medical records (or the lack thereof) to establish the absence of an injury. Finally, an officer could testify that they witnessed no real injury, or that the victim admitted to experiencing no harm. For example, a witness might tell a police officer: “I can’t believe I walked away from that completely unscathed.”

No Proximate Cause

If you can establish that there was no proximate cause between your alleged unlawful act and the injury, you cannot face penalties under this section. Your attorney may prove that although you made a mistake on the road, this mistake had absolutely nothing to do with the victim’s injury.

For example, a driver may have watched you swerve wildly on the road far up ahead, causing them to become distracted and crash. Although one might argue that your swerving partially contributed to the crash, these actions are not sufficiently connected to the injury, and they cannot be described as a proximate cause. Another example of insufficient proximate cause might involve a bystander witnessing your crash and then suffering a heart accident, despite not being struck by any vehicle.

You Were Not Driving the Vehicle

You can only face penalties under this section if you were driving the vehicle involved in the crash. Police may mistake you for the driver under a range of different circumstances. For example, you might witness another driver commit a hit-and-run after striking a pedestrian.

Despite understanding the risk of a DUI arrest, you may pull over, call 911, and offer medical assistance to the injured pedestrian. When police arrive, however, they may assume that you were the one who struck the pedestrian and charge you with DUI causing injury. Unfortunately, DUI cases of mistaken identity are more common than many realize. You can avoid penalties if you clear up this misunderstanding with help from a qualified defense attorney.

Another situation might involve switching seats with the real driver after the crash. You may do this intentionally or accidentally, leading police officers to believe that you were to blame. Alternatively, the driver may manipulate you or trick you into switching seats with them. If you can establish that someone else was driving at the time of the accident, you can avoid virtually all criminal penalties associated with the crash.

No Unlawful Act Occurred

Finally, it is possible to establish that no illegal act occurred prior to the collision. You may have been obeying all traffic laws prior to the crash, and the accident may not have been your fault. If your driving was essentially flawless prior to the collision, you cannot face penalties for DUI causing injuries. Like many other elements of VC 23153, the definition of an unlawful act is highly subjective.

What happens if a traffic light suddenly turns yellow, and you decide to accelerate instead of slamming on the brakes? What if you turn on your indicators a few seconds too late before attempting a turn? Do these decisions represent legitimate traffic infractions, or do they simply indicate that your driving could use a little improvement? These are questions your attorney could raise as they seek positive results on your behalf.

In addition, your attorney could refer to a range of evidence that indicates the complete absence of an illegal act. This might include surveillance footage that shows you obeying all traffic laws before the crash.

Penalties for VC 23153 Conviction

DUI causing injury is a wobbler offense, which means that it can lead to either a felony or a misdemeanor. The severity of your alleged defense will determine what type of penalty you face. The court may use its own discretion when sentencing you, and there are no specific aggravating factors that trigger felony penalties under this section.

Misdemeanor DUI Causing Injury

DUI injury cases can be charged as felony DUI or misdemeanor DUI. The district attorney has the discretion to decide whether to charge the DUI case as felony charges or misdemeanor DUI. The most important facts in deciding whether to charge a DUI injury case as a felony or misdemeanor is the nature of the injuries, the BAC, the nature of the illegal act, and your criminal history. If convicted of a misdemeanor under VC 23153, you face a county jail sentence of up to one year. The court could also sentence you to five years of probation, a fine of up to $5,000, and a license suspension for up to three years. In addition, you could be ordered to complete drunk driving classes (at your own expense) and pay restitution to the victim(s).

Felony DUI Causing Injury

If convicted of a felony under this section, you could face up to four years in state prison. The court may also order you to pay a fine of up to $5,000, complete DUI school, and order a driver’s license suspension of five years. Furthermore, this could constitute a “strike” according to California’s Three Strikes Law, and you may be classified as a Habitual Traffic Offender (HBO).

Felony DUI Causing Great Bodily Injury Enhancement

If convicted of a felony DUI, and the prosecution alleges that a person suffered great bodily injury within the meaning of California Penal Code section 12022.7, this can serve as an enhancement to felony DUI. A great bodily injury enhancement makes a felony DUI case substantially more serious, as it turns a felony DUI into a strike offense, and the law provides that a person convicted of felony DUI with a great bodily injury enhancement should be denied probation and sentenced to state prison.

DUI Causing Death

If your accident causes a death, you may also face charges under Penal Code Section 191.5, DUI causing death. If you caused the accident due to gross negligence, you face a “straight felony” with no possibility of misdemeanor penalties. If some victims survived the crash while others perished, you may face penalties under both VC 23153 and PC 191.5.

Gressley & Donaldson: Top DUI Defense Attorneys in California

title decoration line

While the penalties for felony DUI causing great bodily injury are severe, the outcome of your case is far from guaranteed. Internet research may be a positive first step, but it only represents the initial stage of your defense.

To approach your DUI charges more proactively, consider booking a consultation with a qualified, experienced defense attorney in California. With these legal professionals by your side, you can assess your situation with a greater sense of clarity and confidence. Schedule a consultation with Gressley & Donaldson today.

contact us to start building your defense

We understand that being accused of a crime is one of the most challenging times of your life. Rely on us to advocate for your rights and to give you the defense you deserve.