Many of us know that iconic Thunder Road scene from Grease – Rizzo waving the scarf and Danny and Leo tearing off in souped-up cars, racing to win a pink slip in a drag race. Or we watched street racing in American Graffiti and the Fast and the Furious while gripping the edge of our seats. It looks so glamorous and exciting in the movies. In reality, drag racing or street racing is dangerous, and it can also put innocent people on the roads at risk. Houston-area law enforcement officers take street racing seriously, and with good reason, to keep all of us safe on the roads from reckless drivers.
If the police arrest you for real-life “street racing” in Texas, it can be a serious matter, particularly if the police also allege that you were driving while intoxicated or driving with an open container of alcohol. You could also face charges of organized criminal activity or street racing with bodily injury if an accident took place as well. However, someone in the wrong place at the wrong time can also face unnecessarily aggravated charges for street racing under Texas law.
What is Street Racing Under Texas Law?
Texas law defines street racing pretty broadly, but law enforcement officers often hit those they charge with multiple charges, tacking on organized criminal activity, street racing with injury, or DWI charges.
- Street Racing
Texas law defines street racing broadly, forbidding racing, speed contests, acceleration contests, testing the physical endurance of a vehicle, or trying to make a speed record during a drag race.
The code states:
(a) A person may not participate in any manner in:
(1) a race;
(2) a vehicle speed competition or contest;
(3) a drag race or acceleration contest;
(4) a test of physical endurance of the operator of a vehicle; or
(5) in connection with a drag race, an exhibition of vehicle speed or acceleration or to make a vehicle speed record.
Texas law goes on to define “drag race” as operating:
(A) two or more vehicles from a point side by side at accelerating speeds in a competitive attempt to outdistance each other; or
(B) one or more vehicles over a common selected course, from the same place to the same place, for the purpose of comparing the relative speeds or power of acceleration of the vehicle or vehicles in a specified distance or time.
Texas law expands the definition even further by including a broad definition of “race.” A “race” means using two or more vehicles to try to:
(A) outgain or outdistance another vehicle or prevent another vehicle from passing;
(B) arrive at a given destination ahead of another vehicle or vehicles; or
(C) test the physical stamina or endurance of an operator over a long-distance driving route.
Texas Penal Code § 545.20 (2009). As you can see, the definition of race is so far-reaching in Texas that if the police believe you and another car are trying to keep a third car from passing, they can charge you with street racing. Even if you happen to be a driver in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could face criminal charges.
- Organized Criminal Activity
Sometimes police will also charge street racers with “organized criminal activity,” which carries steeper penalties. A person commits organized criminal activity if they commit any of a long list of crimes, with the intent “to establish, maintain, or participate in a combination or in the profits of a combination or as a member of a criminal street gang.” Organized criminal activity must involve three or more people. See Tex. Penal Code § 71.02(a) (2021). The statute covering organized criminal activity does not specifically include street racing. Rather, it includes crimes like murder, arson, theft, sexual assault, and drug crimes. The statute does include “unauthorized use of a motor vehicle,” making organized criminal activity an extremely broad statute. See id.
- Street Racing with Injury or Death
Street racing with bodily injury happens when the individual violates the street racing statute, and any injury happens due to street racing. Even a minor injury raises the crime to a third-degree misdemeanor, with Texas law stating the crime “is a felony of the third degree if it is shown on the trial of the offense that as a result of the offense, an individual suffered bodily injury.” Texas Penal Code § 545.20(g) (2009).
If the street racing causes “serious bodily injury or death,” the street racing offense becomes a second-degree felony. These are serious crimes with severe penalties. So, if you're facing street racing charges with injury or death, you need to retain an expert in criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.
What is DWI Under Texas Law?
Sometimes a stop by the police for street or drag racing will lead to a DWI charge. In Texas, a DWI can encompass one of several charges, with the penalties varying based on prior convictions, the circumstances of the arrest, and whether an accident also occurred. If the police believe you are intoxicated while street racing or have an open container of alcohol in the car, it can increase a first street racing charge to a Class A misdemeanor.
- Driving While Intoxicated
In Texas, a DWI doesn't necessarily have to involve blood alcohol content over the legal limit. Rather, the law defines driving while intoxicated as driving in a public place:
- With a BAC over .08%, or .04% if you have a commercial driver's license, or
- Without the normal use of your physical or mental faculties,
- As a result of the use of alcohol or drugs.
So, while police may often rely on BAC testing to show that you are driving while intoxicated, they can also rely on your behavior, coordination, speech, and more to show that you no longer had the normal use of your physical or mental faculties regardless of your BAC. If the police allege that your street racing charge involves intoxication or driving with an open container of alcohol, you could face enhanced penalties or even a felony charge.
- Intoxication Assault
Intoxication assault, otherwise known as DWI with serious bodily injury, involves all of the elements of a DWI, along with serious bodily injury to another person “by accident or mistake.” Intoxication assault doesn't require intent to harm someone else. Texas law defines “serious bodily injury” as an injury that “creates a substantial risk of death or that causes serious permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.” Tex. Penal Code § 49.07 (2007). There must be a causal link between your DWI and the injuries the other person sustained. Unlike street racing with bodily injury, an intoxication assault charge cannot result from a minor injury. However, if your DWI involves serious bodily injury, the intoxication assault charge is a third-degree felony. You'll also face the underlying DWI charge, as well as a charge for street racing with bodily injury.
- Intoxication Manslaughter
Intoxication manslaughter occurs when a DWI results in someone's death. As with intoxication assault, all the elements of a DWI must be present. You must be:
- Operating a motor vehicle,
- While intoxicated,
- In a public place.
However, if because of your impairment, you cause an accident that results in a fatality. As with intoxication assault, intoxication manslaughter doesn't require intent, but there must be a causal link between your intoxicated driving and the cause of the fatality.
Intoxication manslaughter is a second-degree felony, but you will also face the underlying DWI charge, as well as a charge for street racing with bodily injury or death.
What are the Penalties for Street Racing and DWI?
- Street Racing Penalties
Under Texas law, the penalties for street racing can range from a Class B misdemeanor up to a serious felony, depending on the circumstance of your stop and the arrest. A first offense is a Class B misdemeanor, carrying penalties of up to 180 days in jail and up to $2,000 in fines. Penalties increase for subsequent offenses or aggravated conditions related to the arrest.
- Subsequent Offenses Street Racing
A second street racing offense, street racing that leads to a DWI, or street racing with an open container of alcohol is a class A misdemeanor. A Class A misdemeanor can lead to up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. On top of that, you'll face penalties for the DWI or open container charge. Street racing involving two prior offenses is a state jail felony. Penalties include 180 days to two years in jail and up to a $10,000 fine. See Tex. Penal Code § 545.420 (2009).
- Street Racing with Organized Criminal Activity
The statute lists the penalty as “one charge higher” than the most serious underlying crime if charged with organized criminal activity. For example, a first street racing offense, the organized crime charge will be a Class A misdemeanor, on top of the Class B misdemeanor street racing charge. An organized crime charge with a third offense street racing charge will be a third-degree felony on top of the state jail felony charge for the street racing charge.
- Street Racing with Injury or Death
For street racing involving injury or death, penalties are severe. Even a minor injury related to a street race can result in a third-degree felony charge. Penalties are two to ten years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. If someone is seriously injured or dies, the crime becomes a second-degree felony, punishable by two to twenty years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Under Texas law, the police will also confiscate the vehicle as evidence if the street racing involved death, bodily injury, or property damage. See id. at § 545.420(i).
- DWI Penalties
If you're also facing a DWI or open container charge in addition to a street racing charge, it can increase the street racing charge from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor. In addition, you'll also face penalties for a DWI conviction.
- Driving with an Open Container: Driving with an open container of alcohol is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable with up to a $500 fine. However, driving with an open container can also raise a street racing charge from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor and a first DWI charge from Class B to a Class A misdemeanor.
- First DWI: A first DWI offense is a Class B misdemeanor carrying a $2,000 fine and a jail sentence of up to 180 days. You'll also face a mandatory administrative penalty of $3,500 and a suspended license.
- Second DWI: A second DWI offense is a Class A misdemeanor, carrying up to a $4,000 fine, a jail sentence of up to one year, a suspended license, and a $3,500 administrative penalty.
- Third or Subsequent DWI: A third or subsequent DWI conviction is a state jail felony. You could face jail for two to ten years, fines of up to $10,000, in addition to a suspended license for up to two years, and a mandatory administrative fine.
- DWI with a Child Passenger: Driving while intoxicated with a minor under the age of 15 is a state jail felony. A conviction is punishable by two to ten years in jail, fines of up to $10,000. You'll also face a suspended license and a mandatory administrative fine.
- Intoxication Assault: Intoxication assault involving a DWI with serious bodily injury is a third-degree felony. Penalties include two to ten years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. However, if the person injured ends up in a vegetative state or was a police officer or firefighter working in the line of duty, intoxication assault becomes a second-degree felony. In Texas, a second-degree felony is punishable by two to twenty years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
- Intoxication Manslaughter: Intoxication manslaughter is a second-degree felony and a serious crime. Penalties include two to twenty years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. But if the individual killed is a police officer, firefighter, or EMT working in the line of duty, intoxication manslaughter becomes a first-degree felony. A first-degree felony in Texas is punishable with five to 99 years in prison.
Defending Street Racing Charges
It's important to remember that you can defend street racing and organize criminal activity charges. Just because three or more people were present and driving doesn't mean that you conspired or were street racing. Sometimes well-intentioned police officers can misinterpret innocent activities or make assumptions about people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The prosecution must prove each element of the crime. If you weren't speeding, accelerating, racing, or trying to keep another vehicle from passing, a skilled Texas criminal defense attorney may be able to show that the state can't prove each element of the crime against you. Moreover, proving a conspiracy among three or more people to commit an organized crime is a high bar. Don't assume that the court will find you guilty simply because the police or prosecution allege a conspiracy.
Whether you're facing a street racing charge or an aggravated street racing charge with a DWI or serious bodily injury or death, it's important to understand the seriousness of the charge. However, an arrest and criminal charges don't mean that you are guilty. An expert in criminal defense law and DWI defense can help guide you through the criminal justice system and develop the best strategy for your defense.
Hire an Expert in Criminal and DWI Defense
A street racing, organized criminal activity, or street racing with bodily injury charge isn't something you should face on your own. A criminal charge isn't an inevitable conviction, and you shouldn't take a plea without advice from an expert in Texas criminal and DWI defense. You need a skilled criminal defense attorney by your side. Attorney Doug Murphy is one of Texas's best driving defense attorneys. He is an expert in both criminal defense law and DWI defense. Doug is one of only two attorneys in Texas who holds Board Certifications in both DWI Defense and Criminal Defense Law.
Doug is a seasoned litigator, well versed in trial advocacy, negotiation, and the finer technical and legal aspects of criminal defense and DWI defense law in Texas. Whether it's best to take your case to trial or negotiate more reasonable charges or penalties with the prosecution, Doug has the experience and gravitas to get the best possible outcome for your charge. Moreover, U.S. News and World Report recently named him a DWI defense Best Lawyers in America in Houston for 2021.
Doug Murphy has guided many Texas drivers through charges of racing on a highway in Houston. Doug has also helped hundreds of drivers through DWI and criminal charges, and he can help you as well. Find out why the Houston media calls Doug “the drinking driver's best friend.” Give the Doug Murphy Law Firm a call at 713-229-8333 or contact them online to schedule your consultation today.