More than one million drivers in America were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest report on “Impaired Driving.” And for several years, Harris County has reportedly had one of the highest DWI fatality crash rates in the country. The pandemic has only complicated matters, with drunk-driving arrests reportedly on the rise as establishments reopen. DWI numbers were higher in Harris County in May 2020 than the previous year, according to the county’s D.A. Office.
All of that is to say that, we cannot minimize the severity of a charge of driving while intoxicated (DWI). It is, of course, a serious charge. However, although it may be a stressful and confusing time, it's not the end of the world, and you're not the first person to make a mistake.
And a DWI charge is not the same as a DWI conviction. So while costs and consequences are usually the first concerns that race through the minds of drivers facing DWI charges in Texas—what you should instead be thinking about is the importance of a legal defense.
Know Your Rights
In the first quarter of 2020, Austin's American-Statesman reported that in Austin already had seen 42 DWI cases in which the accused's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) test reading was within the legal limit that Texas uses to define intoxication. Last year, Austin had 254 similar cases and 344 cases in 2018.
A recent ESPN story seems to confirm the pervasiveness of questionable DWI citations in Texas. Houstonian Buffalo Bills recruit Ed Oliver tells the sports publication that he felt “violated” when he was arrested in Montgomery County earlier this year for driving while intoxicated despite his Breathalyzer reportedly indicating .00% alcohol in his system. All charges were eventually dropped. “I felt like I was guilty until proven innocent, not innocent until proven guilty,” he told ESPN.
Defining DWI, and How Changing Times Are Affecting DWI Numbers
Texas law defines “intoxication” as not having “the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of...alcohol, a controlled substance, [or] a combination of two or more of those substances...into the body.”
The Texas Department of Transportation states that a person is automatically considered legally intoxicated and may be charged with DWI if they have a BAC of .08 or higher. To put this BAC number into perspective, consider that it takes only two or three beers in an hour to make some people legally intoxicated.
As COVID stay-at-home requirements ease, there are added pressures. Houston Public Media reports that, in May 2020, as the country began to reopen, DWI numbers were even higher than they were in May 2019. The increase is attributed in part to a sudden increase of drivers on the road and establishments overserving customers.
While the Texas Department of Transportation continues to study how to best “educate and show [establishments] how to serve alcohol responsibly,” locating an attorney who is a Board Certified specialist in DWI defense will greatly help you understand Texas state laws and resolve the legal situation that you're facing.
Key Factors that Can Impact a DWI Charge
State and federal DWI laws can be complex. You can face a fine for driving while intoxicated even if you're not driving the vehicle that was stopped. (People can be arrested for DWI even when they were asleep in their cars.)
And “driving” does not necessarily mean a car: DWIs apply to piloting aircraft and boating. If you decide to ride a bicycle home from your next social event, you may not necessarily be protected from a DWI. There is no state law prohibiting riding a bike while drunk, but some prosecutors argue that bikes are covered in the general Texas DWI statute. While Doug Murphy vehemently disagrees with any prosecutor who construes a bicycle to be a motor vehicle, it just goes to show how overly zealous tactics some police officers will resort to.
A DWI is not limited to consumption of alcohol, either. The law considers a person intoxicated if they are impaired due to marijuana or other drugs. In Texas, drivers can even be considered intoxicated due to prescription drugs or over-the-counter medication.
Other factors can add to one's potential culpability: If either the driver or a passenger has an open alcohol container in a vehicle when stopped by the police, they may also face a DWI fine of up to $500.
If there is a child passenger under 15 years old in the vehicle, the driver can be charged with child endangerment and face a fine of up to $10,000 and up to two years in jail. And if the driver was a parent, the parent may lose custody.
Legal Consequences for 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Time DWIs
The DWI costs and penalties stemming from a drunk-driving citation vary based on individual circumstances, and one DWI can result in multiple charges. El Paso's ABC 7 News recently reported that a DWI could cost Texas drivers up to $17,000 in fines and fees. Of course, it could also cost you your driver's license. However, as noted in one recent high-profile DWI case in Harris County, a DWI penalty can also result in a lighter penalty such as probation, community service, or taking a required DWI education safe-driving course.
If you are convicted, the actual penalty will depend on the facts of your case and how well your lawyer mitigates those facts.
A DWI first offense and second offense are usually considered misdemeanors. Understandably, the penalties become harsher with subsequent offenses. A third DWI offense is a felony.
Penalties for first time DWI cases depend on the specifics of the case, but they can now be as much as $6,000. One key factor: if the charges brought are for a class A or B misdemeanor—with fines ranging from $2,000 to $4,000. Plus, a conviction for a DWI misdemeanor invokes a license renewal surcharge for three years at an annual fee of up to $2,000. First-timers may also face a jail sentence of 72 hours to 180 days in jail, and they may have their license suspended for a year.
A second DWI charge results in stronger penalties, including higher fines starting at $4,000 and the loss of your driver's license for two years.
After two or more DWI convictions, you must install a special ignition switch that prevents your vehicle from being operated if you've been drinking.
A third DWI is considered a third-degree felony: Conviction could bring a $10,000 fine, 10-year prison sentence, and a two-year license suspension. Land a fourth DWI offense, and the maximum penalties increase to $20,000.
It is important to remember that being arrested does not mean that a conviction is a certainty, and many justified defenses can be raised in DWI cases.
If convicted, the actual penalty that you may face will depend on the specifics of your case, and the experience of your lawyer. A qualified Houston DWI Attorney can beat a DWI conviction, or lessen the punishment.
Understanding Additional Charges, from Assault to Drug Crimes
Although the stress of facing a DWI can be intimidating and confusing, it is imperative that you team with a capable lawyer who is a DWI Specialist and well-rounded in criminal defense so he can assist in understanding any additional or even unrelated charges.
A DWI charge is unique from most other criminal charges in that it may include different types of proceedings at the same time. For example, you can request an administrative proceeding to prevent your driver's license being suspended. There are the related criminal proceedings. And you may have additional hearings after the trial. (E.g., a lawyer can request a DWI expungement for those who have been exonerated.)
Also, if a driver is convicted of DWI in Houston, it doesn't mean that the fight is over. Anyone who believes they have been wrongfully convicted has the right to request an appeal.
If you're facing charges of any infraction from reckless driving or assault to drug crimes or domestic violence, your best bet is to hire a veteran and decorated Houston attorney who is Board Certified in Criminal and DWI Defense. Houston-based Attorney Doug Murphy is one of only two Texas lawyers who is both Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and in DWI Defense by the National College for DUI Defense.
Contact an Experienced DWI Specialist Defense Attorney
One of the best DWI lawyers in Houston, Doug Murphy brings 20 years of experience in the courtroom. Annually heralded as one of the Best Lawyers in America by US News & World Report, Murphy currently serves as the Dean of the National College for DUI Defense conducted at Harvard Law School and served two terms on the board of directors and as co-chair of the DWI Committee with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He was also recognized by the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association for his hand in exposing the flaws in the Houston Police Department Breath Alcohol Testing vans, which led to their being decommissioned.
Murphy has extensive experience defending clients in a wide array of cases, including Driving While Intoxicated, DWI with a Child Passenger Under 15, and Boating While Intoxicated.
If you are facing DWI charges in Texas, contact Doug Murphy’s office today to discuss your case and begin working on your defense.