Geographically, the police arrest people for DWI at a higher rate in rural over urban areas and pull people over for traffic violations at a higher rate as well. So, it's good to know before you head out on a Texas road trip that you're more likely to be pulled over for a suspected DWI in a rural area in Texas.
Specifics of a DWI
To understand how and when the police can arrest you for DWI, you need to understand the crime's specific elements under Texas law. A person commits a DWI if intoxicated while operating a motor vehicle in a public place.
In Texas, “intoxicated” means that your blood alcohol content (BAC) measured .08% or higher, or you no longer had the normal use of your mental and physical faculties because of the consumption of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of the two. The legal BAC limit is only .04% if you have a commercial driver's license.
- While Operating a Motor Vehicle:
The requirement that you be “operating a motor vehicle” seems simple enough, but Texas law interprets both “operating” and “motor vehicle” quite broadly. A motor vehicle can pretty much be anything you can drive on the road, including farm equipment, a bicycle, or a riding lawnmower.
- In a Public Place
Similarly, the legal requirement that you be operating a vehicle “in a public place” seems straightforward, but the law interprets “public” broadly as well. Under Texas law, “public” typically means that the public has access to the location, not public property or a public roadway.
Unexpected Ways to get a Rural DWI
We all know that driving after having too much to drink is a bad idea. But what happens if you have a glass of wine at lunch while you and your family head to a vacation spot? What if you take some beverages out on the boat to go fishing? Or heaven forbid you have a cold beer before you head out to mow the neighbor's lawn down the block. The police could pull you over for a minor traffic violation and decide you're driving while intoxicated in many unexpected places, especially if you're in a rural area.
- DWI While Operating Farm Equipment
You can get a DWI while operating a tractor or even a riding lawnmower. Say what? That's right. The Texas DWI statute defines “motor vehicle” pretty broadly. It can be “a device in, on, or by which a person or property is or may be transported or drawn on a highway, except a device used exclusively on stationary rails or tracks.” Tex. Penal Code § 32.34(a)(2) (1994). So, a “motor vehicle” includes pretty much any farm equipment that you can drive on a highway, including tractors and riding lawnmowers. So, even if you're just driving your lawnmower across the way to help out a neighbor, the police can pull you over for a suspected DWI.
- DWI on Private Property
The Texas DWI statute states that you have to be operating a vehicle in a “public location” that doesn't mean just public roads. At the same time, it seems crazy that the police can arrest you for a DWI on private property, like the long road to your ranch, the parking lot of a restaurant, or your own driveway. But the police can arrest you for a DWI on private property in many cases. Under Texas law, a person commits a DWI if they operate a motor vehicle in a public place while intoxicated. It's a misconception that “public place” means public roadway. Rather, under Texas law, whether something is a “public place” depends on whether the public can access it.
- DWI in Your Parked Car
After having a few too many, we often think the best thing to do is stay in the parking lot or pull over on the side of the road and sleep it off. While it may be safer, the police can still arrest you for a DWI in this situation. Texas law interprets “operating a vehicle” pretty broadly. You can be “operating” a vehicle if you do something “to affect the functioning of [the] vehicle in a manner that would enable the vehicle's use.” So, if you hop in the car and put the keys in the ignition and then put the seat back and go to sleep, the police may consider you to be operating the car. If you turn the car on so you can have some air conditioning and then crawl in the back seat and go to sleep, the police can still consider you to be operating the car.
How do you avoid “operating” the car if you know you're impaired?
- Don't put the keys in the ignition.
- Don't put on your seatbelt.
- Don't turn on the radio, the heat, or the A/C.
- Don't pull over and park on the side of the road.
- Don't park anywhere other than a designated parking spot.
- Don't close your eyes while sitting behind the wheel.
- Driving with an Open Container
Driving with an open container of alcohol is illegal in Texas. But just having an open container isn't enough for an offense. You must “knowingly possess an open container in a passenger area of a motor vehicle that is located on a public highway, regardless of whether the vehicle is being operated or is stopped or parked.” Each open container is a separate violation, and the police can charge passengers with a violation as well. But the glove box, trunk, or other locked areas of the vehicle are not considered part of the passenger area.
- DWI While Boating
With all the beautiful lakes in Texas, many of us hitch up our boats, pack a cooler, and take to the water for a break. But water safety patrols are out there watching for people they suspect of boating while intoxicated. It is not illegal to have open containers of alcohol on your boat. As long as you maintain normal use of your “mental or physical faculties” and your BAC is below the legal limit, your responsible consumption while boating is legal.
Unlike a DWI, water safety patrols can pull your boat over for a routine safety check without any suspicion of breaking a boating law. If you're driving a car, the police need to have reasonable suspicion that you committed a traffic violation. Water safety patrols also now use “float tests” or seated field sobriety tests created by police officers. Field sobriety tests used on dry land are already incredibly subjective. These floating tests weren't created by scientists and are even less reliable. You could easily find yourself facing a bogus intoxicated while boating charge in a rural Texas county.
Rural Arrest Challenges
A DWI arrest in a rural area can also present some special legal challenges because your stop is more likely to happen in an isolated area.
- No one else witnessed the stop.
If no one else witnessed your stop, your attorney might be more reliant on video from police dashcams or bodycams, as well as police reports and notes about the stop.
- It's hard to pin down an address.
It may be difficult to go back and evaluate the area where the police stopped you in a rural area, simply because it's hard to note an address or specific location precisely.
- You were just passing through.
If you were just passing through the rural area where the police stopped you, you might be far from home. Not only is it possible that a local cop will be less lenient with someone from out of town, but it can be inconvenient for you to travel back for court hearing, an Administrative License Revocation hearing, or your trial.
Hire an Experienced Texas DWI Lawyer
Police and court procedures for DWIs vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If you're facing a DWI in a rural area, you need an experienced DWI who understands standard procedures for DWI in that county, as well as someone you can easily access from your home.
Attorney Doug Murphy practices all over Texas, with a focus in:
- Austin County
- Bastrop County
- Brazoria County
- Colorado County
- Fayette County
- Fort Bend County
- Galveston County
- Grimes County
- Guadalupe County
- Harris County
- Lavaca County
- Leon County
- Liberty County
- Matagorda County
- Madison County
- Montgomery County
- Waller County
- Walker County
- Washington County
- Wharton County
Doug is Board Certified in DUI Defense by the National College of DUI Defense (NCDD), accredited by the American Bar Association and the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Doug is one of only two attorneys in Texas who is Board Certified in both DWI Defense and Criminal Law. He is also a widely sought public speaker and educator in DWI defense law, with dozens of nationwide speaking engagements under his belt.
Best Lawyers in America recently named Doug the “Lawyer of the Year” for 2021 for DWI defense. Find out why the Houston media called Doug “a drinking driver's best friend.” Call us at 713-229-8333 today to set up a consultation.