When driving in California, you are expected to be vigilant and exercise your duty of care towards other motorists and passengers. In addition, you are required to yield to law enforcement officials when they stop your car. Failure to adhere to any of the California driving laws could land you in jail. In this article, the Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm explains some of the common driving crimes in California, their penalties, and legal defenses.

Driving Crimes Overview

A driving crime is an offense committed while driving a vehicle. California driving offenses are categorized as infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. Infractions do not attract a criminal sentence and are, therefore, not considered as serious offenses but they earn points to your DMV record, which could affect your license.

Driving crimes, on the other hand, are considered as serious misdemeanors and felonies that have the potential for incarceration and heavy fines. A conviction for these crimes appears on your criminal record and can affect your educational and employment efforts. If you are a commercial driver, some offenses such as multiple DUIs can result in permanent suspension of your commercial driver's license, which also takes away your source of income.

Driving Under the Influence

California prohibits drivers from operating a motor vehicle while under the influence. The DUI laws in California include:

  • VC 23152(a) which makes it illegal for any person who is under the influence of alcohol, a drug or a combination of both, to drive a vehicle
  • VC 23152(b) which makes it illegal to drive with a BAC level of 0.08% or higher
  • VC 23152(e) which makes it illegal to drive while under the influence of any drug
  • VC 23152(f) prohibits operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage and a drug

Violating these laws can lead to charges for driving under the influence of alcohol and DUI of Drugs. Typically, a DUI investigation begins with a traffic stop at a designated DUI checkpoint, or a traffic stop. Where an officer stops you at a traffic stop, they have a reasonable belief that you are violating a traffic law. Such an assumption could result from your manner of driving, or a visible defect on your vehicle. In some cases, a DUI investigation begins at the scene of an accident.

When an officer stops you, and he or she suspects that you may be under the influence, he or she will conduct several sobriety tests. These tests aim at identifying whether you can follow instruction, your alertness, and stability.

He or she may also administer a preliminary alcohol screening, which is a portable Breathalyzer test. You can opt not to take the PAS test unless:

  • You are on probation for a DUI
  • You are under 21 years and are suspected of a DUI (California has no tolerance for underage drunk driving)

If the PAS results show that you have exceeded the legal limit, the officer will arrest. In some cases, your PAS results may result in a lower legal limit, but your driving behavior and your performance on the field sobriety tests suggest intoxication. In such a case, the officer may call upon a Drug Recognition Expert to help in determining whether you are under the influence of drugs.

When you are arrested, you should submit the requested chemical test. Refusal to submit to a chemical test post-arrest could result in sentence enhancements and suspension of your driver’s license. In addition, you need to contact an attorney or a friend or relative to arrange for your release.

If the prosecution decides to file charges, you will need the representation of a DUI lawyer to help you fight these charges. In most cases, DUI attorneys fight for charge reduction, dismissal of charges, sentence reductions, and alternative sentencing.

DUI in California is a priorable offense for up to ten years. The penalties for the offense depend on your prior convictions and the circumstances of the current offense. Some factors that may aggravate the penalties include:

  • BAC of .15% or higher
  • Refusal to submit a post-arrest chemical test (VC 23612)
  • DUI with a minor (14 or below) in the vehicle
  • DUI with multiple injuries (VC 23153)
  • Excessive speed
  • Reckless driving
  • DUI while on probation
  • Multiple DUIs in five years

The penalties for a DUI depends on whether it is convicted as a misdemeanor or a felony. The penalties may include:

  • Incarceration in county jail or state prison
  • Fines
  • Probation (may be formal or informal depending on the offense)
  • License suspension
  • Mandatory installation of an IID
  • Permanent loss of a commercial driver’s license for a second subsequent violation with a BAC of .04% or higher
  • Sentence enhancements for injured or killed victims
  • Attendance of an alcohol or drug treatment program approved by the court

Another offense that can lead to DUI charges is driving while addicted to drugs. Driving while addicted to drugs is a violation of VC 23152 (c). While the law is rarely enforced, driving while you are addicted to a drug, and are not on a drug treatment program, can lead to DUI charges. A drug under VC 23152(c) may include alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription drugs.

Reckless Driving

California vehicle Code 23103 prohibits driving a car on a highway or off-street parking facility with wanton disregard for the safety of other people or property. You display a wanton disregard for safety if you are aware of the risks of your action but still engage in the act by ignoring the risk.

Reckless driving may include actions such as:

  • Excessive speed
  • Tailgating
  • Illegal passing
  • Weaving through traffic
  • Ignoring traffic lights and signs
  • Driving a vehicle with dangerous flaws
  • Speed contests

Reckless driving is usually charged as a misdemeanor offense where only the driver suffered injury. The consequences for a misdemeanor include between 5 and 90 days in county jail, misdemeanor probation and a fine not exceeding $1000.

Where minor injuries occur to another person other than the reckless driver, the penalties include thirty days to six months in county jail and a fine of $220-$1000.

If a third party (passengers, pedestrians or other motorists) suffer a serious injury, the offense is convicted as a wobbler. The consequences depend on the circumstances of the offense and the specific injuries the victims suffered. The offenses charged as wobblers include:

Reckless driving resulting in specific injuries such as concussions, bone fractures, loss of consciousness, impairment, disfigurement, brain injury, or wounds requiring extensive suturing, the offense is charged as a wobbler.

You have prior convictions for driving crimes (such as reckless driving, an exhibition of speed or a California DUI), and the offense results in great bodily injury.

The penalties for a misdemeanor conviction include a county jail term of between thirty days and six months and a fine of $220-1000. When convicted as a felony, the penalties include 16 months, 2 or three years’ incarceration in a county jail and up to $10000 in fines.

When reckless driving results in death, you may face charges for either vehicular manslaughter or murder. Second-degree murder due to reckless driving is charged when:

  • You have a prior conviction for a DUI, reckless driving or exhibition of speed
  • You have special knowledge that should inform you of the danger reckless driving poses
  • You drove with an exceptional disregard for human life

When convicted of second-degree murder for reckless driving, you will be sentenced to 15 years to life in California state prison. If you are a peace officer, the term increases to 25 years to life.

If you made a recording of the reckless driving, you are guilty of a misdemeanor under VC 40008. The penalties for the violation include up to six months in county jail and fines not exceeding $2500. If the reckless act endangers a minor, the potential jail term increases to one year, and the penalties increase to a maximum of $5000.

Reckless driving can have other consequences such as points on your DMV record, higher insurance premiums and the offense becomes a prior for future related offenses.

Vehicular Manslaughter 

PC 192(c) defines vehicular manslaughter as causing the death of another person while operating a vehicle by negligently committing an unlawful (not a felony) act or a lawful act that might lead to death. If you someone dies because of your driving, you may be charged with various forms of vehicular manslaughter, including:

  • PC 192(c)(1) vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, or
  • PC 191(c)(2) misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter
  • PC 192(c)(3) vehicular manslaughter for financial gain

The distinguishing factor between the two crimes is the level of negligence. The laws of California define negligence as the failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable harm to another person. Negligence happens when:

  • You commit an act that a reasonable and careful person would not do under the same circumstances
  • You fail to do something that a reasonable person would do under the circumstances
  • You have a duty of care to another person
  • You fail to exercise your duty of care, which leads to the death of the other person

Gross negligence implies that you acted with negligence that was beyond the ordinary. Courts interpret gross negligence implied malice as it indicates a disregard for human life and the consequences of the grossly negligent action.

Vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence is a wobbler offense. The penalties for a misdemeanor include summary probation, a maximum county jail term of one year and a fine of up to $1000. When convicted as a felony, you face potential imprisonment in state prison for two, four, or six years, formal probation and fines not above $10,000.

If your negligent act is a probable or contributing factor to the death of the victim, then you will still be charged with vehicular manslaughter. Vehicular manslaughter resulting from ordinary negligence is a misdemeanor offense whose penalties include summary probation, incarceration for up to one year in county jail and a fine not exceeding $1000.

Under PC 192(c) (3), you can be convicted if someone dies from the collision you caused in order to defraud an insurance provider or another party. Vehicular manslaughter for financial gain is a felony with a potential state prison term of four, six, or ten years and a fine of up to $10000.

In addition to the penalties, each vehicular manslaughter conviction results in the suspension or revocation for three years.

Driving Without a License

VC 12500(a) prohibits driving in California without a valid drivers' license unless you are exempted driver. People exempted from carrying a driver's license in California include:

  • You are employed by the US government and are driving on official business (except for commercial vehicles)
  • You are driving an implement of husbandry off a public road
  • You are from another jurisdiction, are aged at least 18 and have a valid license from the said jurisdiction
  • You are a non-residence with a valid diplomatic driver’s license
  • You are from a jurisdiction that does not issue driving licenses, and you operate a foreign vehicle that you own. In this case, you must obtain a license after 30 days in California
  • You are a minor (you can only drive for a maximum of ten days after your entry into California) if you stay for more than ten days, and do not have a valid license from your state or country; you have to obtain a DMV nonresident minor’s certificate and file proof of financial responsibility.

You can be charged with violating VC 12500(a):

  • Failing to obtain a valid California Driver’s License
  • You become a California resident but fail to obtain a license in ten days
  • You have not renewed your license

The first offense for driving without a license is charged as a California infraction. Subsequent offenses are misdemeanors whose penalties include:

  • Incarceration in a county jail for up to six months
  • $1000 in fines

If you have a valid license, your lawyer can request that your charges be dropped to failure to display a driver’s license, which is an infraction. In some cases, he or she may have the charge reduced to an infraction charge of driving without a license. Both infractions attract a fine of $250.

Evading an Officer

VC 2800.1 makes it a crime to flee or attempt to flee from a police officer who is pursuing you, while you are driving a motor vehicle. Evading an officer has the following elements that the prosecution must prove to convict you:

  • An officer pursued you in a motor vehicle
  • While driving, you willfully and intentionally fled or tried to flee from the officer
  • The officer’s vehicle has at least one lighted red lamp that was visible from the front
  • You saw or should have seen the lamp
  • The officer’s vehicle sounded a siren
  • The peace officer’s vehicle was clearly marked
  • The officer was in a clearly distinctive uniform

The distinctive markings on a car could include the name and logo of the law enforcement agency and blinking headlights, flashing blue lights that are clearly visible to the car being pursued. A red light must always be present for you to be convicted for evading an officer.

Evading an officer is a misdemeanor whose penalties include:

  • Misdemeanor probation
  • A county jail term not exceeding one year
  • A fine of up to $1000
  • A thirty-day impoundment of the vehicle with which you evaded the officer
  • License suspension

If you evaded an officer in a commercial motor vehicle, your commercial license would be suspended for one year after the first violation and for life for a subsequent violation.

In some cases, evading an officer may be charged as a felony under VC 2800.2 reckless evasion. Felony reckless evasion occurs when you:

  • Willfully and knowingly evade an officer who is pursuing you and is in a clearly marked car and is wearing a distinguishing uniform
  • While evading, you display a willful and wanton disregard for the wellbeing of people and property

Wanton disregard for safety and property under VC 2800.2 can be interpreted when you:

  • Drive recklessly
  • Commit at least three traffic violations while evading

Reckless evading of an officer is convicted as a wobbler offense. The penalties for a misdemeanor include:

  • Summary probation
  • Between six and twelve months in county jail
  • A maximum fine of $1000

When charged as a felony, the penalties include:

  • Formal probation
  • 16 months to three years in state prison
  • Up to $10,000 in fines

In both cases, your vehicle will be impounded for up to thirty days, and your license suspended for a period equal to the probation.

Hit and Run

The law requires that all motorists involved in an accident to stop at the scene to exchange their information with other drivers, passengers, or people whose property has been damaged from an accident. You should also stop if someone suffers injury. Hit and run can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

Misdemeanor hit and run occurs when you leave the scene of an accident without providing you identification information, and know or should reasonably know that some property has been damaged.

Felony hit and run occurs when a person is injured or killed, and you leave the scene without providing you identification information.

Hit and run is a serious offense and could result in probation, incarceration in either state prison or county jail, fines, and license suspension. In some cases, you might receive sentence enhancements if you were driving on a suspended license or without a valid license.

Fighting Charges for Driving Crimes

Defending against the charges against you is one of the best ways of fighting a charge for a California driving crime. Representation by a lawyer in such a case is important and can tip the scales to your side significantly.

Here are some of the strategies that can be used when fighting charges of driving crimes:

  • You were not driving

You may be arrested for crimes such as a hit and run when you were not the one driving at the time of the accident. For example, if your child or employee has access to your vehicle, they might have fled the scene, but since it is registered to you, you are arrested. In other cases, your car might have been stolen and used in committing crimes such as evading an officer or a hit and run. Some overzealous officers arrest people for driving without a license, while they were not driving the vehicle. Such an arrest can occur when you are in your car, but someone else (who has a valid license) is driving.

  • The officer had no reason to stop you

Officers are not allowed to stop you just because they can. They have to follow the right procedures. Before they stop you for a driving crime, they have to have probable cause and reasonable belief that you are committing a crime.

  • The officer did not follow procedure when collecting evidence

When an officer does not follow the right procedure when investigating a driving crime, your lawyer can introduce a motion to suppress the evidence. This defense is useful for driving crimes such as DUI.

  • Lack of Intent

If you are accused of a driving crime that requires intent, you can use this defense to show that you did not intend to commit the crime for which you are charged.

  • Insufficient evidence

The prosecution has to provide sufficient evidence that proves the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution cannot do this, the defense can point out that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute you. Insufficient evidence leads to the dismissal or reduction of charges. 

Find a Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

You do not have to fight charges for a driving crime alone. Contact our knowledgeable and experienced lawyers at the Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm for our defense services. We offer compassionate and competitive defense to clients in Orange County and California by helping them build a strong defense for their charges. Contact us for a free consultation at 714-740-7848.