California legislators have enacted many laws against drunk driving to help protect the public by discouraging drivers from operating vehicles while intoxicated. When the potential danger to innocent victims becomes a reality because someone driving under the influence gets in a car accident causing injury, the driver will face far more substantial penalties for their DUI under 23153 (VC). If the victim dies as a result of the accident, you could instead face charges under 191.5 (PC), vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. If you have been involved in a DUI-related car accident that resulted in injury or death, contact a DUI defense lawyer as soon as possible.
Who is Responsible for an Accident When One Driver is Drunk?
When you get in a car accident, and an officer believes you were driving under the influence, he will arrest you on suspicion of DUI, even if you were not the driver at fault for the crash. In many cases, the officer will automatically assume a drunk driver caused an accident, even if that is not always true. Unfortunately, many drivers who have been drinking automatically assume they are responsible for any accidents they were involved in, and these types of statements can be used against you in insurance claims, civil court, and criminal trials. To best protect yourself, it is always advisable to refuse to answer police questions or admit fault to the other driver until you first speak with a lawyer experienced in DUI with accident cases.
Even if you make the mistake of admitting fault, a skilled attorney may be able to show that you were simply speaking out of guilt for your risky behavior, not based on the facts of the case. In some cases, evidence may be available to show you did not cause the crash. An accident investigator could review the situation and work as an expert witness on your behalf. Alternatively, a witness to the incident could testify that the other driver was responsible. Or, if you have a dashboard camera in your car, this could show what really happened.
Will You Face Additional DUI Penalties for Getting into an Accident While Drunk?
No. Just getting in an accident while driving under the influence does not mean someone will face additional charges. If no one other than the drunk driver was injured, they will usually face standard misdemeanor DUI charges. However, they could face penalty enhancements such as mandatory restitution for property damage or community service.
On the other hand, if someone was injured even slightly, they will face additional criminal charges with more severe penalties.
Are DUIs That Cause Injury Felonies?
Not always. The crime of DUI causing injury falls under California Vehicle Code section 23153 (VC). This offense is what’s known as a “wobbler,” meaning it can be filed as a misdemeanor or a felony. While the crime can be filed as a felony even if the only injury was minor pain, these incidents are more commonly charged as misdemeanors, especially if the defendant has a clean record and their attorney helps push for lesser charges. Even after filing felony charges, prosecutors and judges can later reduce the charges to misdemeanors. They often do this in cases involving minor injuries if the blood alcohol concentration isn’t excessive and the driver has no past DUIs on their record.
Those with a past DUI conviction will most likely be charged with a felony, punishable by time in state prison. Similarly, when the injuries were particularly severe, even first-time offenders will likely be charged with a felony.
What Are the Penalties for DUI Causing Injury?
Under 23153 (VC), misdemeanor convictions for a DUI that causes injury are punishable by:
- Up to one year in county jail
- A fine of up to $1,000
- Probation lasting between three and five years
- A driver’s license suspension of up to one year
- DUI school
- Restitution payments to the victims
As a felony, the penalties include:
- A prison sentence of up to 3 years
- Up to $1,000 in fines
- DUI school
- A license suspension of up to 1 year
If anyone other than the drunk driver suffered great bodily injury, the crime will also be considered a violent felony, meaning a conviction will add a strike to the driver’s criminal record under California’s three strikes law.
When someone dies due to a drunk driving car crash, the charges will be filed under 191.5 (PC), vehicular homicide while intoxicated. This offense is punishable by up to ten years in prison. However, if a driver with a previous DUI was responsible for an accident that caused death, they will be charged with second-degree murder, and the prosecution usually pushes for life imprisonment in these cases.
Fighting Charges for 23153 (VC)
To secure a conviction under 23153 (VC), the prosecutor must show the following:
- you drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- violated a vehicle code which caused a car accident
- someone was injured as a result
If they cannot prove all three elements, you cannot be found guilty of this crime. As a result, there are many strategies to fight these charges. If your attorney can show you were not driving under the influence, that you did not cause the car accident, or that no one other than you was injured, you should be able to beat the charges. In some cases, where the accident caused only minor injuries, it may be possible for your lawyer to negotiate a plea bargain where you face only standard DUI charges rather than those for drunk driving with injury.
Depending on the situation, your attorney may help you enroll in a substance treatment program as soon as the charges are filed to show that you are proactively taking steps to ensure this situation never happens again.
Fleeing the Scene After an Accident
One of the worst things you can do if you have been involved in an accident, whether or not you were drunk, is to flee the scene. Leaving the scene of an accident is a separate crime, commonly known as hit and run, which can result in additional fines and penalties, including up to two years of probation and two points being added to your DMV record. Even if the accident was not your fault or you only hit an object rather than another person or vehicle, you can still be charged with this crime. If the accident resulted in an injury, you could even be charged with felony hit and run, which could leave you in prison and will result in your license being suspended.
If you fled the scene to get medical assistance, you can avoid charges, but only if you notified the medical staff or police at the hospital. In these cases, a lawyer can help ensure you do not face charges for hit and run.
What to do if You Get in an Accident While Drunk
Whether or not a DUI accident was your fault, there are some things you need to keep in mind:
- As stated above, never leave the scene
- Provide officers with your driver’s license, insurance information, and vehicle registration when asked to do so
- Do not answer police questions aside from those related to your identity
- Leave the vehicle at the officer’s request
- Agree to perform a chemical test if the officer requests you to
How do Police Decide Who Caused a Crash?
In some cases, it is easy to decide who is at fault in a car accident, for example, if someone runs a red light in front of multiple witnesses. In most cases, more investigation is necessary though. Police officers start their investigation by interviewing both parties. You do not need to speak with the police at this time and should insist on having an attorney present, especially if you are drunk or were otherwise driving questionably. If officers believe any drivers were drunk, they may request them to perform a field sobriety test or take a DUI blood or breath test.
The officer will also interview any witnesses. He will likely also take pictures of the damage, any skid marks, and the location of the vehicles, particularly if they intend to issue a citation or make an arrest and believe this information could be useful in a legal case later. In some cases, particularly those involving criminal charges for DUI causing injury or death, officers may also ask nearby shops if they have any security footage of the incident.
The officer will determine fault in a car accident based on the location of the vehicles, where the impact occurred, and the stories from those involved in the crash and any witnesses. Unfortunately, if police have evidence that someone was driving while drunk or in an otherwise dangerous or negligent manner, they often assume that person is responsible. As a result, they may do the bare minimum investigation required by law, even if that does not properly establish fault.
In serious injury or death cases, the police also often call in a department-trained accident reconstructionist to assess the cause of the accident. This analysis includes everything from skid marks to examining the suspect vehicle for any preexisting defects which may have contributed to the accident. This report can be challenged if you disagree with its findings.
Your DUI with injury defense lawyer can also hire their own accident expert to examine the vehicle involved and all the evidence.
A good defense attorney can use all available resources to investigate the accident —interviewing witnesses, reviewing photographs of the scene, studying the toxicology report, and verifying this information against the officer’s testimony.
If you have been involved in a DUI accident causing injury, contact a lawyer as soon as possible. You can schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss by calling (760) 643-4050.