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Washington Court Holds That Defendant’s Previous Conviction Elevates DUI to Felony Charge

In a recently published opinion, the Washington Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether a defendant’s prior Alford plea could elevate a subsequent driving under the influence (DUI) offense to a felony charge. In State v. Bird, 352 P.3d 215 (Wash. App. 2015), the state appealed the trial court’s decision dismissing the felony DUI charge against the defendant. The Court of Appeals agreed with the prosecution and reversed the trial court, holding that the defendant’s previous conviction for vehicular assault served as a predicate offense enabling the state to charge him with a felony DUI.

IMG_20130705_164014_582In 2009, the defendant entered an Alford plea to vehicular assault under all alternatives, which was accepted by the court. The defendant’s statement on the guilty plea acknowledged that he drove a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and caused substantial bodily harm to another individual. The court subsequently entered a felony judgment and sentence, finding the defendant guilty on a plea of “Vehicular Assault—All Alternatives,” with “DUI” handwritten over the charge. In 2013, the defendant was arrested after being stopped by police for erratic driving. The officers stated that the defendant was slurring his speech, had red eyes, and performed poorly on field sobriety tests. The defendant also blew a .138 on a portable breath test administered by the officers. Due to his 2009 vehicular assault conviction, the DUI was elevated to a felony offense.

Under Washington law, a DUI charge may be elevated to a felony when the defendant has previously been convicted of vehicular assault while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and has caused substantial bodily harm to another person. Once the trial court determines that the prior offense is admissible as a predicate offense to elevate the charge, the state can introduce the crime into evidence at the later DUI trial.

In Bird, the trial court found that the record was unclear as to which alternative he was convicted of, and without such proof, the felony DUI charge must be dismissed. The court of appeals disagreed, holding that the trial court need not rely solely on the defendant’s plea statement but may also look to any other reliable evidence to determine whether there was a factual basis for the prior guilty plea. The court then noted that the defendant pleaded guilty to all alternatives, including DUI, in his 2009 conviction, and that in his statement, he admitted to drinking under the influence as well as causing harm to another individual. The court also used the police report referenced in the plea as a factual basis for the DUI, in which witnesses stated that the defendant had been drinking before driving. Based on the totality of the record, the court of appeals held that there was sufficient information for the state to charge him with a felony DUI.

If you have been charged with a DUI, you have the right to seek legal advice from a criminal defense attorney. The attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC represent clients who have been charged with DUI, domestic violence, or other criminal offenses in Washington, and we can guide you through the legal process. To discuss your case with one of our experienced attorneys, contact our office at (206) 622-6562 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

Preparing for your DUI Arraignment, Seattle Attorneys Blog, April 26, 2015

Case Summary: State of Washington v. Ryan Richard Quaale, Seattle Attorneys Blog, March 21, 2015