Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Contributors & Editors

Bliss Lavelle

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Last Update on July 1, 2024

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Many people wonder, “Is a DUI a misdemeanor?” The answer depends on several factors, as DUIs can be classified as either misdemeanors or felonies. Understanding these distinctions is really important for anyone dealing with a DUI charge, as the classification can significantly impact legal proceedings and consequences.

Whether a DUI is Considered a Misdemeanor or Felony

When faced with a DUI charge, it’s essential to understand whether it will be treated as a misdemeanor or a felony. The classification of a DUI offense can significantly impact the severity of penalties and long-term legal consequences. DUIs are not always classified similarly and can be considered misdemeanors or felonies. The specific classification largely depends on the laws of the jurisdiction where the offense occurred and the details of the incident. Several factors influence whether a DUI is classified as a misdemeanor or felony:

  • The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of the offender
  • Prior DUI offenses on the offender’s record
  • Whether the incident caused injury or death to others1

The classification of a DUI as a misdemeanor or felony depends on various factors that reflect the severity of the offense and the potential threat it poses to public safety. Understanding these distinctions is important for individuals facing DUI charges, as it can help them anticipate possible legal outcomes and prepare accordingly.

In the United States, a DUI can be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case. Generally, a first-time DUI offense with no aggravating factors is considered a misdemeanor. However, if the DUI incident results in serious injury or death to another person, the charges may be elevated to a felony, even if it is the offender’s first offense.
In Arizona, a DUI is typically considered a misdemeanor when an individual operates a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or higher. Additionally, a person can be charged with a misdemeanor DUI if they drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs to any degree, even if their BAC is below 0.08%.
Contrary to popular belief, an extreme DUI in Arizona is not classified as a felony. Instead, it is categorized as a Class 1 misdemeanor under Arizona law, which is the same classification as a standard DUI. Despite being a misdemeanor, an extreme DUI carries more severe penalties compared to a standard DUI due to the higher level of intoxication involved.

Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

To understand whether a DUI is a misdemeanor or a felony, it’s really important to know the legal specifics of what constitutes a DUI. DUI is defined as operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) above the legal limit, which is usually 0.08%, or while under the influence of drugs.2 This legal threshold helps drivers safely operate their vehicles without impairment. DUI charges often arise from various situations, such as:

  • Routine traffic stops where officers suspect impairment
  • Sobriety checkpoints designed to detect impaired drivers
  • Accidents where alcohol or drug impairment is suspected to have been a factor

The legal definition of DUI and the typical circumstances leading to DUI charges are shaped by the need to maintain public safety on the roads. Understanding these details is important for recognizing the seriousness of DUI charges and the importance of responsible driving.

Misdemeanor Offense

Misdemeanors are considered lesser criminal acts. They are generally punishable by fines, community service, probation, or short-term jail sentences, usually less than a year. When considering the question, “Is a DUI a misdemeanor?” it’s important to understand the definition of a misdemeanor and how it differs from a felony3.
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Criminal Charges

When an individual faces a DUI charge, it is considered a criminal offense, which triggers a series of legal steps and potential penalties that can have long-lasting consequences. A DUI charge is not merely a traffic infraction but a criminal offense that can result in court proceedings, significant legal penalties, and even a permanent criminal record5. This classification emphasizes the severity with which the law treats impaired driving and is important to understanding whether a DUI is a misdemeanor or a felony. The typical progression of a DUI case through the legal system can look like this6 :

  1. Arrest: The initial step following a DUI suspicion, where the individual is taken into custody.
  2. Arraignment: The accused is formally charged and asked to enter a plea.
  3. Plea Bargaining: Negotiations may occur in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge, which impacts whether the DUI is a misdemeanor or a felony.
  4. Trial: If no plea agreement is reached, the case proceeds to trial, where evidence is presented before a judge or jury.
  5. Sentencing: If convicted, the sentencing phase determines the penalties, which can differ depending on whether the DUI is a misdemeanor or a felony.

Criminal charges associated with a DUI require an understanding of the comprehensive legal processes involved. From arrest to sentencing, each step carries critical implications for the accused, highlighting the importance of legal guidance and a robust defense strategy. Knowing the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony DUI charge is essential for understanding the potential consequences and outcomes of the criminal process.

Criminal Record

A DUI conviction not only carries immediate legal penalties but also leaves a lasting mark on an individual’s criminal record, potentially affecting various aspects of their life for years to come. The impact of a DUI on an individual’s criminal record explains that a DUI conviction becomes a part of an individual’s criminal history, which can have far-reaching effects7. This record can influence future employment opportunities, housing applications, and other critical life aspects, as many organizations and agencies conduct criminal background checks. Understanding the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony DUI is important, as a felony conviction can have even more severe long-term consequences. The consequences of a DUI can extend well beyond the initial conviction8. Here are the several long-term effects:

  • Increased Insurance Rates: Auto insurance rates may skyrocket due to the increased risk of insuring a driver with a DUI record, regardless of whether the DUI was a misdemeanor or a felony.
  • Difficulties in Professional Licensing: Certain professions that require licensing can deny or revoke licenses based on criminal history, particularly in fields that involve driving or high levels of responsibility. The severity of these consequences may depend on whether the DUI is considered a misdemeanor or a felony.
  • Travel Restrictions: Some countries may deny entry to individuals with a criminal record, including DUI convictions, complicating international travel. The impact of these restrictions can vary based on whether the DUI is a misdemeanor or a felony.

The ramifications of a DUI conviction on one’s criminal record are significant and long-lasting. These impacts serve as a important reminder of the seriousness of DUI offenses and the importance of responsible driving behaviors. Understanding the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony DUI is essential for grasping the potential long-term consequences of a conviction.

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Legal Consquences

Navigating the aftermath of a DUI charge, mainly when classified as a misdemeanor, involves understanding the scope of legal penalties designed to punish and prevent future offenses. For repeat offenders, the consequences become significantly harsher9. The penalties for a misdemeanor DUI are intended to be corrective but are still severe, which can include:

  • Fines: Financial penalties aimed at deterring future DUI incidents.
  • Probation: A period of supervised freedom, often coupled with specific conditions like regular check-ins or community service.
  • Mandatory Alcohol Education: Programs designed to educate offenders about the risks of alcohol consumption and impaired driving.
  • Short-term Incarceration: Potential jail time, usually less than a year, to emphasize the seriousness of the offense.
  • Longer Jail Sentences: To reflect the repeated disregard for law and safety, jail sentences for repeat offenders are typically longer than those for first-time misdemeanor DUI offenders10.
  • Felony Charges: Repeated DUI offenses can result in the escalation of charges from misdemeanor to felony status, carrying more severe penalties and longer-term consequences.

While the initial legal consequences of a misdemeanor DUI are designed to be corrective, they escalate significantly with repeated offenses, emphasizing the law’s focus on deterring dangerous behavior and protecting public safety. Understanding the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony DUI is essential for grasping the potential legal consequences of a conviction.

Quick Tip

Is a DUI a misdemeanor?

In Arizona, a first-time DUI is typically classified as a misdemeanor, but aggravating factors like high BAC or injuries can elevate it to a felony. Understand AZ DUI laws to know the consequences.

Traffic Violation

DUIs are among the most severe offenses categorized under traffic violations due to their potential to cause harm. These violations carry heavy penalties and are often accompanied by other risky driving behaviors.DUIs are serious traffic violations that go beyond mere infractions11. They lead to significant legal and administrative penalties, reflecting the substantial danger they pose to public safety and the severe view law enforcement takes of such offenses. Understanding whether a DUI is considered a misdemeanor or a felony is important, as it can impact the severity of the penalties associated with this traffic violation. DUI charges frequently occur in conjunction with other dangerous behaviors on the road12. Common accompanying traffic violations include:

  • Speeding: Often linked with impaired judgment due to alcohol or drugs, speeding can increase the risk of accidents and the severity of a DUI offense.
  • Reckless Driving: Reckless driving, which exhibits a blatant disregard for the safety and rules of the road, can elevate a DUI charge from a misdemeanor to a felony.
  • Failure to Obey Traffic Signals: This includes running red lights and stop signs, which can lead to accidents and further compound the consequences of a DUI violation.

While a DUI is a severe traffic violation on its own, it is often part of a broader pattern of unsafe driving. This combination not only heightens the risk to the driver and the public but also compounds the legal consequences faced by the offender. Understanding the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony DUI is essential, as additional traffic violations can impact the classification of the offense and the resulting penalties.

Key Takeaways

Alcohol Impairment

Alcohol impairment is a key factor in DUI cases, influencing both the assessment of the individual’s condition at the time of arrest and the subsequent legal charges and penalties. Assessing impairment due to alcohol involves specific methods that aim to measure an individual’s ability to operate a vehicle objectively13. This typically includes:

  • Field sobriety tests, which may involve physical and cognitive exercises designed to gauge impairment
  • Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) measurements, often using breathalyzers, to determine the exact level of alcohol in the bloodstream.

The extent of alcohol impairment plays a massive role in shaping the DUI charges filed against an individual. The degree of impairment, as evidenced by behavior during sobriety tests and BAC levels, often directly influences the severity of the charges and the associated penalties2. Higher levels of impairment generally result in more serious charges due to the increased risk posed to public safety. This is important to consider when determining whether a DUI is a misdemeanor or a felony, as the level of impairment can be a deciding factor. Alcohol impairment is a central element in DUI cases, assessed through reliable testing methods. The degree of impairment not only helps establish the occurrence of a violation but also significantly affects the legal repercussions the driver faces.

Legal Blood Alcohol Limit

Understanding the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit is fundamental to comprehending DUI laws, as BAC is a key metric used to determine impairment and enforce DUI regulations.

  • Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC): BAC is a scientific measure used to determine the amount of alcohol present in a person’s bloodstream, expressed as a percentage. This measurement is critical because it provides a quantifiable indication of a person’s impairment level, which is essential in enforcing DUI laws and determining whether a DUI is considered a misdemeanor or a felony.9

  • Legal Limits Across Different Regions/States: While the commonly recognized legal limit for BAC in many areas is 0.08%, this threshold can vary depending on local laws. Note that some regions may have lower limits, especially for certain classes of drivers like commercial vehicle operators or those under the legal drinking age14. Understanding these variances is important for drivers, especially those who travel across different jurisdictions, as it can impact whether a DUI is classified as a misdemeanor or a felony.

The legal BAC limit is a critical element in determining DUI offenses. It provides a clear, measurable standard for impairment, which helps maintain road safety and ensures that drivers are held accountable for operating vehicles under the influence of alcohol. 

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License Suspension

License suspension is a common legal repercussion for DUI offenses, serving as both a punitive and preventative measure to curb impaired driving. 

  • Conditions Under Which a License Can Be Suspended Due to DUI: A driver’s license can be suspended immediately upon arrest for a DUI, a policy known as “administrative license suspension.”1 Alternatively, suspension might only occur following a conviction, depending on the jurisdiction. This immediate consequence serves to remove potentially dangerous drivers from the roads quickly. 
  • Process and Duration of License Suspension: The specifics of license suspension, including its duration, vary significantly by jurisdiction and the specifics of the offense. Details that suspension periods can range from a few months to several years, depending on factors such as whether the DUI is a misdemeanor or a felony and whether the offender has prior DUI convictions6. In some cases, offenders may be eligible to apply for a restricted license, which allows them to drive under certain conditions, such as commuting to work or school, during the suspension period.

The suspension of a driver’s license following a DUI arrest or conviction is a critical legal consequence that directly impacts an individual’s mobility. This measure sisa a deterrent against driving under the influence and helps safeguard the community by temporarily removing at-risk drivers from the road. 

Court Appearance

Navigating a court appearance for a DUI charge can be daunting, but understanding what to expect and how to prepare can help alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty. Court proceedings for DUI cases are typically structured and involve several key stages5. These stages include:
  • Arraignment: This is where the charges are read, and the defendant enters a plea, which may differ depending on whether the DUI is a misdemeanor or a felony.
  • Plea Deals: Opportunities may arise for negotiating a plea bargain, which can often result in reduced charges or penalties, particularly if the DUI is a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
  • Pre-Trial Motions: Legal arguments that can affect the course of the trial, such as motions to suppress evidence, may be more common in felony DUI cases.
  • Trial: The formal examination of the evidence before a judge or jury to determine guilt or innocence, with the proceedings varying based on whether the DUI is a misdemeanor or a felony.
A court appearance for a DUI involves multiple stages and requires thorough preparation to handle effectively. Engaging with legal counsel and understanding the full scope of available defenses are integral to managing the legal challenges posed by DUI charges, whether classified as misdemeanors or felonies.

Check Out Our Services at Cornerstone Healing

Understanding the differences between a misdemeanor and felony DUI is important for anyone facing DUI charges. The classification of the offense can significantly impact the legal proceedings, potential penalties, and long-term consequences. While a misdemeanor DUI is generally less severe than a felony DUI, both charges should be taken seriously, as they can lead to license suspension, fines, jail time, and a criminal record. It’s essential to consult with an experienced DUI attorney who can provide guidance and help navigate the complexities of the legal system.

For those struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, seeking professional help is extremely important to prevent future DUI incidents and maintain overall well-being. Cornerstone Healing Center offers comprehensive substance abuse treatment programs that address the underlying issues contributing to addiction. Their experienced team of professionals provides individualized care, including medically supervised detox, residential treatment, and outpatient services. By seeking help from a reputable treatment center like Cornerstone Healing Center, individuals can take the first step towards recovery and reducing the risk of future DUI charges, whether misdemeanor or felony.

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Author & Reviewers

bliss lavelle addiction, mental health, and recovery writer

Bliss Lavelle, an aspiring writer, draws inspiration from her mother’s journey with addiction, mental health, and recovery to support and educate others, especially young adults, about the dangers of substance abuse, the importance of mental health awareness, and getting help through evidence-based treatment. 


Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s Scottsdale treatment facilities. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges; he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues.

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