How DWI Charges Have Changed over the Years in Texas

Texas police vehicle in a rearview mirror, pulling over a driver for DWI

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In recent years, the State of Texas has adopted a somewhat less harsh approach to driving while intoxicated (DWI) convictions. Prior to 2019, a DWI conviction would automatically appear on your record. As a result, a conviction could lead to serious collateral consequences like trouble getting a job or renting an apartment.

In 2019, the state began offering first-time offenders a deferred adjudication option, which has proved beneficial to many Texans. If you are facing a DWI charge – whether it’s your first or not – you need an experienced Killeen DWI defense attorney on your side.

Every DWI Charge Is a Serious Charge

While DWI charges in Texas have evolved over the years, they remain very serious. In fact, Texas has some of the harshest DWI penalties in the nation. Not only are there steep fines and tough sentences involved, but there are also challenging social consequences that can make getting out from under the charge that much more difficult.

All of the following consequences can apply if you are convicted of a DWI:

  • A noticeable decrease in your social standing

  • Difficulty finding a job

  • Difficulty keeping your job

  • Difficulty renting a place or obtaining a home loan

  • Loss of professional licensure

You may also be denied federal financial aid, which can sabotage your higher education goals.

Deferred Adjudication

Deferred adjudication is something of a hybrid response to a criminal charge. It refers to community supervision (often called probation) that only a judge can order. If both the prosecutor and the accused agree to waive a jury trial, deferred adjudication can be granted in lieu of a conviction and sentence.

It is important to note that taking a deferred adjudication means that you accept guilt in the matter, but if you complete the requirements the judge sets forth, the conviction won’t go on your record. Your seasoned Killeen criminal defense attorney will help you decide if taking deferred adjudication is the best path forward for you.

Your Guilty Plea

If you accept deferred adjudication, you will proceed with entering a guilty plea, but the finding of guilt against you will be deferred while your probation is pending. You may also be able to enter a plea of no contest or “nolo contendere,” which means that you aren’t contesting the charge against you.

If you successfully complete the requirements of your deferred adjudication, the conviction can ultimately be sealed from public view, but a record of the corresponding arrest is very likely to remain.

When the Underlying Charge Is a DWI

Prior to 1984, the State of Texas allowed deferred adjudications for DWI charges, but that changed, and from 1984 to 2019, prosecutors no longer had this legal flexibility.

This change resulted in many prosecutors engaging in what is called “charge bargaining,” which allowed defendants facing DWI charges to swap them out for different charges that carried the same legal weight on their records. This practice was beneficial for many people pursuing careers that a DWI would affect, such as in the military or in the field of education.

As the backlog of DWI cases grew over the years, Texas brought back the option of deferred adjudication for those facing a first DWI offense, but there’s a catch.

While a first-time DWI charge can receive deferred adjudication, a second charge will unseal the first, which can lead to enhanced fines and penalties for the second charge. In other words, a second DWI can revive the first, and you’ll face all the same repercussions you would have faced if there’d been no deferred adjudication at all.

This arrangement strikes a balance between protecting the public from drunk drivers and giving a second chance to those drivers who may have made foolish mistakes behind the wheel but who have learned their lessons.

Dropping the DWI Surcharges

Texas used to be infamous for its DWI surcharges – or additional annual fees – which were piled on top of ticket costs that were high to begin with. Failure to pay these surcharges could lead to license suspension.

The Driver Responsibility Program

This so-called surcharge was part of the state’s Driver Responsibility Program. When the program ended in 2019, The Texas Tribune reported that more than 600,000 people immediately became eligible to have their driver’s licenses reinstated.

The additional fees that these surcharges added annually ranged from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the underlying driving offense.

Those burdened with these surcharges often experienced what is known as a cycle of debt. To begin, a motorist would lose their driver’s license, which interfered with their ability to go to work, earn a living, and pay the surcharges necessary to regain their driving privileges.

The Surcharges for a DWI Charge

The surcharges for DWI charges in Texas were especially high. A first offense generally meant an annual surcharge of $3,000, but a subsequent DWI offense could mean a $4,500 fee. When the DWI involved a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .15 or higher, the charge soared to $6,000. Although the surcharge disappeared in 2019, the fines associated with DWI charges rose. Consider the following civil fees for those convicted of DWI in Texas:

  • For the first DWI in a 36-month period, the fine is $3,000.

  • For a subsequent DWI in a 36-month period, the fine is $4,500.

  • For a DWI with a BAC of .15 or higher, the fine is $6,000.

Ignition Interlock Systems

You generally won’t face a driver’s license suspension for a first-offense DWI, whether or not you receive deferred adjudication. Instead, you will be required to complete an online DWI education class.

You will, however, be required to have an ignition interlock system installed on every vehicle you drive. This device requires you to blow into a tube prior to driving and ensures that your car won’t start if you blow over the set limit of .03 percent.

Ignition interlock systems are another tool that allows the state to balance protecting the public without making the consequences faced by those convicted of DWI overly burdensome. Ultimately, these electronic devices are considered more effective than license suspensions at keeping impaired drivers off our roadways.

FAQ about DWI Charges

If you’re facing a DWI charge, you almost certainly have questions, and the answers to those asked most frequently may help.

Can My DWI Charge Receive Deferred Adjudication?

The primary requirement for a DWI deferred adjudication is that the charge be your first. However, only the judge can order deferred adjudication, which means that every case is considered in relation to the unique circumstances involved. Having a focused Killeen DWI defense attorney in your corner will help to ensure that your case is resolved favorably.

Is Deferred Adjudication Always the Best Option?

Deferred adjudication is not always the best option. If you have a strong defense, you may be able to beat the DWI charge altogether, which means you won’t have a conviction on your record because you won’t have been convicted. Your dedicated DWI defense attorney will help you determine the right legal path forward for you.

What Are the Most Common Defenses in DWI Cases?

If you are convinced that you weren’t over the legal limit, accepting guilt in the matter may not strike you as a great plan - and you're right; it isn't. Being charged with DWI is not the same as being guilty of DWI, and bringing your strongest defense is advised. Often, effective DWI defense strategies hinge on faulty testing, which can be based on any of the following issues:

  • Poorly maintained testing devices

  • Poorly calibrated testing devices

  • Poorly trained officers conducting the tests

  • Improperly stored testing samples

  • A break in the testing sample’s chain of custody

Is Jail Time Automatic for a DWI Conviction?

While there is a three-day minimum jail requirement for first-time DWI convictions in Texas, judges often cover this with deferred adjudication or probation. In other words, it’s unlikely that you’ll face a jail sentence for a first conviction.

Is a First DWI Charge a Misdemeanor?

A first DWI offense in Texas is a Class B misdemeanor that carries fines of up to $2,000 and jail time of up to 180 days. However, jail time isn’t likely.

If your BAC was especially high or you were involved in an injury-causing accident, the charge can be enhanced to a Class A misdemeanor, and the fines and penalties will reflect this.

What Is the Legal Limit for a DWI Charge in Texas?

Like most states, Texas has a legal limit of .08 percent BAC, and anyone who reaches or exceeds this limit while driving can face a DWI charge. However, if you test below this limit, it doesn't mean a DWI charge is off-limits. If the police determine that you were impaired enough by alcohol to affect your ability to drive safely, you could face a DWI charge even if you weren’t over the limit.

Will a DWI Conviction Ever Drop Off My Record?

Once you have a DWI conviction on your record in Texas, it remains there permanently unless it is sealed, such as with a deferred adjudication.

Many people mistakenly believe that after a certain amount of time has passed, a DWI conviction will simply disappear from one’s record. While a DWI conviction can’t be expunged

If you have a single DWI charge on your record, you may be able to have it sealed once a set period of time has elapsed since the completion of your sentence. This process involves petitioning the court for an order of nondisclosure.

While petitioning for nondisclosure won’t remove the arrest or charge from law enforcement’s records, the DWI conviction will be removed from all public records, which means you have the legal right to deny being charged with DWI and your ability to obtain housing or to pursue a job won’t be affected.

When Is a DWI Charged as a Felony in Texas?

While DWI charges are generally charged as misdemeanors, a third offense is a third-degree felony. If the DWI involves a passenger who is under the age of 15 or includes an accident that causes serious injuries, felony charges are likely to apply.

How Do I Know If I Need an Attorney?

If you are facing a DWI, it’s always to your advantage to have legal counsel on your side. You owe it to yourself and to your future to retain the skilled legal guidance of a seasoned Killeen DWI defense attorney early in the process. Your attorney will help guide your case toward a favorable resolution, which can make a significant difference in its outcome.

Will a Conviction from Another State Affect My DWI Charge in Texas?

The State of Texas takes DWI convictions very seriously and will consider convictions from other states. Texas recognizes license suspensions from other states and won’t issue a Texas license during the suspension period. Further, Texas prosecutors can use DWI convictions from other states to enhance Texas DWI charges.

Make the Call to an Experienced Killeen DWI Defense Attorney Today

While Texas has somewhat lightened its stance concerning first-time DWI charges, the penalties it imposes remain some of the harshest in the nation. If you are facing a DWI charge, Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is an accomplished DWI defense attorney who is well positioned and well prepared to help you.

Our well-respected legal team brings immense experience and keen legal insight to every case we take on, and we welcome the opportunity to also work with you. To learn more, please don’t put off reaching out and contacting us online or calling us at (254) 781-4222 to schedule your FREE consultation today.

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