Felony Enhancement in Washington DUI Cases

criminal lawA misdemeanor Washington DUI can be elevated to a felony under some circumstances, including a prior conviction for “[v]ehicular assault while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug.”  To elevate a charge, the state must prove the existence of the conviction and that it relates to the defendant.  Vehicular assault is an alternative means offense, with three alternatives, but not all of the alternatives qualify for the enhancement.  A Washington appeals court recently considered whether the state had proved a defendant’s prior conviction for vehicular assault qualified for the enhancement.

The defendant was charged with a DUI in 2016.  The state alleged the defendant’s prior conviction for vehicular assault while under the influence made the current offense a felony.  After finding the defendant had committed DUI, the jury was then asked to determine whether the defendant had a qualifying prior vehicular assault conviction. The state introduced the court records from the previous conviction as well as testimony from a police officer.  The jury found the defendant had a prior vehicular assault while under the influence of alcohol conviction.

The defendant appealed, arguing the state did not produce sufficient evidence to elevate the offense to a felony.  He argued the evidence only established a generic conviction for vehicular assault, rather than showing that he was convicted of vehicular assault while under the influence pursuant to RCW 46.61.522(1)(b).

The appeals court noted that escalation is allowed only in the event of a prior conviction for vehicular assault while under the influence, not just a “prior offense.” The nature of a prior conviction is a legal matter, so the jury’s finding does not receive deference from the appeals court.  Additionally, the court is limited to the facts that were admitted, stipulated, or proven during the previous proceeding.  Furthermore, the court may only consider the facts necessary to prove the elements of the crime.  If the defendant pleads guilty, the court may only consider the admissions that are actually necessary to prove the elements of the offense.

Although there are three alternative means for proving vehicular assault, only one alternative qualified for the felony sentencing enhancement charged in this case.  The vehicular assault conviction would only qualify for the felony enhancement if the record showed the defendant was convicted of vehicular assault arising from driving under the influence.

The state had produced the information, the defendant’s guilty plea statement, the judgment and sentence, and the arresting officer’s testimony.  The appeals court found that the information, statement, and judgment and sentence were all appropriately admitted.  Testimony of the witness’s actions, however, is not relevant to what was admitted or proved at trial or a guilty plea proceeding.  The appeals court found the testimony should not have been admitted.

The appeals court further found, however, that the record established the defendant’s guilty plea included an admission to all three alternative means of vehicular assault.  Both the information and the guilty plea statement included all three alternatives.  The judgment and sentence stated the defendant was convicted “as charged in the information.”  The appeals court therefore affirmed the conviction.

In this case, the court found sufficient evidence in the record to support the enhancement.  However, in a case where the conviction is general vehicular assault or one of the other two alternatives, the results likely would have been different.  If you are facing a DUI charge, the Washington DUI defense attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC, will help you fight for your rights.  Call us at (206) 622-6562.

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