Changes to Texas DWI Laws

The state of Texas has changed the way it deals with DWI (driving while intoxicated) cases. Because of a new law that took effect in September 2019, first-time DWI offenders now have the option to have their charges deferred.

Deferred adjudication – a plea deal where a defendant pleads “guilty” or “no contest” and is put on probation – was available to people in Texas for DWI offenses until 1984. When the law changed in 1984, prosecutors lost the ability to be flexible when dealing with DWI cases, leading to a huge backlog of cases.

Now that the Texas 86th legislative session has passed the bill that changes how DWIs are handled for first-time offenders, the opportunity to have the charge deferred is back. However, the judge can defer the finding of guilt and put an offender on community supervision or probation. This is unlike a typical deferred adjudication where, if an offender completes it, it is not a conviction, and it is removed from their record.

Fifth Time’s the Charm

This was the fifth time a bill to defer a DWI had been presented. In the past, prosecutors would often “charge bargain,” which meant a DWI would be changed to another charge of equal penalty and wouldn’t carry the same weight on the individual’s record. This would prove beneficial to a person hoping to become a teacher or join the military, for instance, as a DWI conviction may prevent them from doing so.

For years, Texas lawmakers were not able to pass legislation that allowed the option to defer a DWI in part of because of activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Nacogdoches County Attorney John Fleming told KETK-TV in Austin: “The balance that was struck between MADD and other players at the table is that deferred adjudication DWI, if someone qualifies for it and receives that, in the event that they pick up a second DWI, that first DWI they got deferred for, which in theory allows for a conviction to be off someone’s record, it can be used to enhance that second DWI. In other words, you can resurrect it and that’s the beauty of this law and that’s probably how they struck the compromise to get it passed.”

A Second Chance

Some analysts argue that the new law is beneficial to first-time DWI offenders because it gives them a second chance.

Judge Bob Inselmann of Angelina County 217th District told KETK-TV: “Driving while intoxicated is a serious offense. However, there are circumstances where the state can have a wide range of punishment for that DWI.”

Inselmann said that he has seen both repeat offenders and one-time offenders.

“Those are the people you really want to look at, first-time offender, maybe somebody who made a mistake in college or somebody who’s older than that who may have gone to a wedding and done something stupid. If they do everything right then it will go away. In other words, it will be off their record,” Inselmann said.

Surcharges Repealed

Another often-criticized aspect of Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program were the additional annual fees (or surcharges) on top of the cost of the tickets that ranged from $100-$2000, depending on the offense. People would often have their licenses suspended if they failed to pay or did not establish a payment plan within a specific amount of time.

According to the Texas Tribune, the surcharges (often on years-old tickets) grew to thousands of dollars and left many people without a drivers’ license for more than a decade, in some instances. This often led to what officials called a harmful “cycle of debt,” in which individuals without a drivers’ license would have trouble getting to work and earning the money necessary to pay these surcharges.

For DWI offenders, these surcharges could be financially crippling. A first time offense would typically result in surcharges of $3,000 and subsequent offenses would incur a $4,500 fee. Also, any driver who was apprehended with a blood alcohol level of above .15% would incur a $6,000 fee.

With the new law going into effect, the surcharges will be lifted and wiped from the driver’s record, even for a DWI. Individuals who had their drivers’ licenses suspended due to failure to pay the surcharges will see their licenses reinstated.

While the surcharges have been lifted, individuals who are convicted of driving while intoxicated will be forced to pay heavier fines, as of September 1, 2019. These fines include:

  • $3,000 for the first DWI in a 36-month time period (an increase from $2,000 prior to the new law)
  • $4,500 for any subsequent DWI in a 36-month period (an increase from $4,000)
  • $6,000 for a DWI if the driver’s BAC was above .15%

These fines are a set amount, and not a range. So, for example, a second offense will not be charged “up to $4,500” but will require the full payment of $4,500.

Ignition Interlock Systems are Key

When a DWI offender’s charge is deferred, they will be put on probation and will be required to use an ignition interlock system. This system prevents an individual from starting their vehicle without first blowing into a breathalyzer. If they blow a .03 or higher the car will not start.

Scott Harrison, the director of MADD East Texas, told KETK that the new law gives prosecutors another tool in their toolbox in the fight against drunk driving, adding that ignition interlocks are more effective than license suspension. Ignition interlocks have stopped 309,597 ignition starts over a 12-year period from 2006 to 2018, according to MADD.

What is a DWI?

In Texas, a DWI is an offense of operating a vehicle if the driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is above the legal limit. To legally operate a motor vehicle in Texas, your BAC cannot be above .08. Punishments for DWI include but are not limited to:

  • License suspension
  • Fines up to $2,000 criminal charges
  • Incarceration for up to 180 days (for first-time offenders

For over a decade, RJ Harber has handled numerous DWI cases in Dallas/Tarrant county as a criminal defense attorney. If you have been charged with a DWI in Texas, it is critical that you hire an experienced DWI lawyer as soon as you can. If you have been arrested and charged with DWI for the first time, you could be eligible for deferred adjudication, but it is still vital to retain an attorney. With a lawyer on your side, you could possibly have the charges against you dropped entirely, and if that outcome is not possible, deferred adjudication might be the next best option.

Contact an Experienced Attorney

Were you recently arrested and charged with DWI in Dallas? If this is your first offense, there is a new option available to you that could significantly alter how these allegations will affect your life. A conviction for DWI can be costly, with heavy fines and court fees, as well as having a negative impact on your life and livelihood.

Dallas DWI attorney RJ Harber will do everything he can to secure the best outcome if you’ve been accused of driving under the influence. This means getting the outcome with the least-possible penalties, which could include deferred adjudication according to the new law in Texas.

To find out how the Law Offices of RJ Harber can help you with your DWI case, call our Dallas office today at 214-389-1189 to schedule a confidential consultation.