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Motor Vehicle Felonies: Reckless Driving, DUI, Suspended License & More

Policeman bringing a man in handcuffs to a police car with flashing lights.

Employers conducting background checks may encounter a variety of driving-related issues in the history of a job candidate or employee. The most serious of these, motor vehicle felonies, can have major consequences for job candidates, employees, and employers.

The best way to learn if potential or current employees have motor vehicle felonies or other driving violations in their history is through a motor vehicle record (MVR) check. MVR checks are essential when hiring for jobs that require operation of motor vehicles, and in regulated industries such as interstate trucking, drivers must undergo MVR screenings annually. Motor vehicle felonies may also appear in criminal record background checks, and may be of concern even when hiring for positions that don’t require driving.    

Driving offenses, like other offenses, are typically classified in terms of increasing severity: 

  • Infractions: Subject to fines but no jail time.
  • Misdemeanors: Typically punishable by no more than one year in jail, and often resulting in no jail time at all.
  • Felonies: Potentially carrying prison sentences, steep fines and lengthy probation. 

A better understanding of motor vehicle felonies and their potential impacts can help employers develop guidelines and policies for addressing them if they turn up in pre-employment MVR checks or employees’ annual MVR screenings.

Types Of Motor Vehicle Felonies

Traffic laws and regulations vary by state, so the definition of a driving felony depends to some extent on the jurisdiction where an offense occurs. Penalties vary by jurisdiction, too, but no matter where they originate, felonies are considered serious crimes.  

Context also plays a part in determining whether a particular driving offense is treated as a felony: Running a red light or stop sign at an empty crossroads might earn a ticket or misdemeanor charge, but if doing so causes a crash with injuries or fatalities, the case might be treated as a reckless driving felony, vehicular assault, or vehicular homicide. 

Repetition also can be part of the context that determines a felony: Driving without a license might be considered an infraction upon first offense, but multiple violations within a few years could prompt a felony charge.

Finally, a driving offense that might otherwise be considered an infraction or misdemeanor may prompt a felony charge if the driver is found to be impaired by alcohol or drugs when they commit the offense. In such a case, the driver would also be subject to arrest and conviction for driving under the influence, which is also a potential felony in many jurisdictions.

Many motor vehicle felonies are widely understood to be criminal behavior, including:

Vehicular manslaughter (or homicide)

When a vehicle causes the death of another person (including a passenger, pedestrian or driver of another vehicle), its driver may be charged with vehicular homicide or manslaughter. If the driver is considered to have acted negligently, the charge is typically unintentional vehicular manslaughter; if the driver is believed to have acted with murderous purpose, the charge may be intentional vehicular manslaughter. In cases where another person is injured but not killed, comparable vehicular assault charges could apply. All of these offenses are typically felonies, with severe consequences.

Leaving the scene of a personal-injury accident (hit and run)

Any time a driver is in an accident in which a person (or, in some states, an animal) is injured, it’s considered a felony if the driver flees instead of staying to offer assistance and to identify themselves to law enforcement. Fleeing the scene of an accident that caused damage to property (such as another car or a building) is also illegal, but is generally not considered a felony unless there is evidence DUI was a factor.

Fleeing law enforcement

Refusing to stop for a police vehicle or attempting to outrace its pursuit is a felony. Other moving violations committed in the course of fleeing law enforcement may be considered felonies as well.

Whether other driving offenses carry felony charges can be something of a gray area. Following are commonly asked questions about driving felonies:

Is drunk driving a felony?

Driving while drunk (or high on drugs)—formally known as driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI)—is illegal everywhere in the U.S., but a first offense may not be considered a felony.

A first DUI offense may be treated as a misdemeanor if it doesn’t involve a serious accident, but if it causes major property damage, injury or death even a first DUI typically can be prosecuted as a felony. Repeat DUI offenses are automatically classified as felonies in many jurisdictions.

Other violations such as speeding or driving without a license can be prosecuted as felonies if committed when driving drunk or high, even if they’d otherwise be considered lesser offenses. 

State and municipal laws differ on their definitions of “under the influence,” specifying different acceptable blood-alcohol content (BAC) levels, for example. Some states have special “three strikes”-style laws that mandate lengthy jail sentences upon a third (or fourth) felony DUI conviction, even if none of the offenses led to injury or death.

Is reckless driving a felony?

Reckless driving, defined as driving in a way that disregards the safety of others, typically is not considered a felony unless it leads to property damage, injury or fatality. Reckless driving can include actions such as excessive speeding, racing another driver, tailgating or other aggressive driving, or driving without headlights after dark. In many jurisdictions, law enforcement officers have leeway to consider context when deciding whether an incident warrants a reckless driving felony or misdemeanor charge. 

Is driving without a license a felony?

Driving without proof of a valid license (i.e., a state-issued card) is typically treated as an infraction as long as the driver is in fact legally licensed to drive, but if the driver has no legitimate license, felony charges could apply.

If the driver has no legitimate license because they never obtained one or allowed theirs to expire, a first offense would likely be treated as a misdemeanor, provided there was no serious accident. Felony charges could come into play for unlicensed individuals who commit other driving offenses or cause accidents, or whose license was revoked or suspended for past violations.

Is driving with a suspended license a felony?

In most states, driving with a suspended or revoked license is grounds for arrest and impounding of the driver’s car, but the offense is considered a misdemeanor. Repeat offenses rise to the level of felonies in a few states, but in most cases, they remain misdemeanors but lead to longer suspensions or revocations of driving privileges, steeper fines, and up to a year in jail.

Is speeding a felony?

Exceeding the posted speed limit is against the law everywhere, but in most jurisdictions, speeding is treated as an infraction unless it leads to an accident or is tied to other offenses, such as DUI. Speeding that exceeds the posted limit by specific amounts (for example, 25 mph or more over the speed limit) may be considered a reckless driving felony in some jurisdictions.

What Motor Vehicle Felonies Mean For Employers

Motor vehicle felonies have major consequences for offenders’ personal and professional lives. They can seriously impair the ability—and even the legality—of performing certain jobs. That means a driving felony on an MVR report is a legitimate source of concern for employers.

Potential concerns for employers may include:

  • Federal or state laws and company policies that forbid use of company vehicles by drivers convicted of motor vehicle offenses (or of motor vehicle felonies specifically).
  • In the case of pending charges against an employee or job candidate, issues that may need to be addressed could include: Potential loss of work time due to court appearances, jail sentences, etc.; and ability to get to and from work reliably in the event of a suspended or revoked license.

Except in cases where a driving felony disqualifies a candidate or employee from a job because of specific regulations to which an employer is subject, employers and hiring managers should defer to company employment screening policies when reviewing MVR checks to ensure policies are applied fairly and consistently. Consulting legal counsel may be helpful in some instances, as well.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recommends conducting assessments on each candidate individually to help understand the context of every candidate’s case, including those who have been convicted of felonies. 

Factors to take into consideration include:

  • How long ago did the felony occur? Was it a one-time offense or a repeat occurrence? Does the felony and its consequences (e.g., lack of driver’s license) impact their ability to do their job?
  • How has the candidate or employee handled the felony and its aftermath? Are they able to move past it? Are they taking responsibility for it and its consequences? Addressing these issues directly with the individual can provide helpful context.

If an employer decides not to hire a candidate, or terminates an employee, based on the findings of an MVR check, it’s crucial to comply with the adverse action process mandated under federal law, and with fair hiring requirements imposed by many states and municipalities.

Conducting MVR checks and following all laws and compliance guidelines requires significant commitment and resources from employers. Careful attention to these matters can spare hiring companies exposure to unfair or discriminatory hiring litigation and prevent hiring of unqualified individuals while also giving a fair hiring opportunity to those who’ve made mistakes in the past. GoodHire’s background check compliance guide is a helpful resource.

Be Proactive With A Motor Vehicle Record From GoodHire

Using MVR checks to get insight into driving histories of job candidates and current employees can help uncover red flags and reduce risks to your customers and business. In addition to uncovering motor vehicle felonies and other driving violations, they can reveal details such as individuals’ license classes, and the status of their licenses including suspensions or restrictions.

GoodHire’s driving record checks and MVR checks deliver reliable results to help you thoroughly vet candidates for driving-related positions, and the platform’s built-in compliance tools help you comply with federal and local fair hiring laws. 

Contact GoodHire today to discuss MVR options, including setting up custom screening packages for your organization and volume discounts. TALK TO SALES

Disclaimer

The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.