In the 1990s, California enacted one of the toughest criminal laws in the country, known as the “Three Strikes Law.” The purpose of this law was to give longer sentences to people who repeatedly commit felonies and violent crimes. Its effect was terrible: in some cases, defendants found themselves serving life sentences for petty crimes like shoplifting videos. Anyone who got a third felony conviction—a third “strike”—had to face 25 years to life in prison.
In 2012, the people of California voted to reform the Three Strikes Law, making it more lenient for those whose felonies were not “serious” or violent. Even today, however, the law remains in place, and can trigger a life sentence for repeat offenders. In some cases, a DUI can count as a “strike.” A DUI can even result in life in prison.
How does the Three Strikes Law work?
Originally, any felony conviction would count as a strike, even if it was a minor, nonviolent offense. Today that has changed. A conviction only counts as a strike if:
- It is a “serious” felony as listed in California Penal Code Section 1192.7(c), or
- It is a “violent” felony as listed in California Penal Code Section 667.5(c).
Most of the offenses on this list are extremely violent: assault, carjacking, murder, sexual assault, and armed robbery, for example. DUI is not on the list, but there are circumstances where it will count, covered below.
Under the Three Strikes Law, anyone who accumulates three of these convictions must be given a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. Any conviction counts if it took place after March 7, 1994 (when the law was put into effect). It does not matter how much time goes by between convictions.
When does a DUI count as a “strike”?
There are many circumstances where a DUI can be charged as a felony, but even a felony DUI is not always a strike. DUI does not appear on the lists of serious or violent felonies, and most DUIs do not count as a first strike, second strike or any strike. There are three main exceptions, however, where a DUI can potentially count as a strike:
- Felony DUI causing injuries
- DUI manslaughter or murder
- A repeat DUI after one of the above charges
DUI Causing Injuries as a “Strike”
Besides violent and serious felonies, a crime can also count as a strike if it ended up causing someone great bodily injury. Great bodily injury includes things like:
- Broken bones
- Brain damage
- Internal bleeding
- Loss of a limb
If your DUI involves an allegation of great bodily harm, and you are convicted, it will count as a strike against you. If you have two previous strikes from other felony convictions, it will trigger the mandatory 25 years to life sentence.
DUI Murder or Manslaughter as a “Strike”
In some ways, charging a DUI death this way is a legal technicality and does not reflect the violent or enraged intention of a normal murder or manslaughter case. Unfortunately, convicted on one of these charges, your DUI does count as a violent felony and it will be a strike. Again, if this is your third strike, it will trigger the sentence of 25 years to life.
Repeat DUI as a “Strike”
Normally a repeat DUI is not a strike, even if it qualifies you for extra penalties and even if it is a felony fourth DUI.
Imagine, however, that you were convicted of felony DUI manslaughter 11 years ago. Now you are pulled over for DUI again. This time, no one was hurt, no one was killed, and there was no car accident. It is a “clean” DUI.
Unfortunately, because of your past felony DUI manslaughter, the prosecutor can elevate the current charge to felony status, too. And—even though it is not a manslaughter case—the new charge can also count as a strike. Your previous DUI manslaughter case effectively “contaminates” the new DUI as if it was also a violent or serious crime. In other words: any DUI can count as a strike if you have a previous DUI strike on your record.
This is a controversial interpretation of the Three Strikes Law, and it could be disputed in court. But at least one case like this has already been upheld by the California Supreme Court, which means that more prosecutors are likely to seek the same “strike” status in situations like this.
Fighting the Three Strike System
For the three strikes system, it does not matter whether all of your previous strikes were DUIs or if none of them were. It also doesn’t matter whether this was your first time DUI. All that matters is that you have three qualifying convictions since 1994. If so, you face the possibility of life in prison.
We believe that this system is unnecessarily harsh, and that it is not fair to punish DUI as if it were a violent felony. We also know that it is possible to fight a Three Strikes DUI case and win. A good lawyer may be able to downgrade the charge to something that is not a “strike,” or even win your case altogether. You need to fight the charge.
Have you been charged with DUI? We can connect you with an experienced Los Angeles DUI lawyer and get you a FREE consultation. Fill out the form to the right or call (310) 896-2724 and get your free consultation today.