When is Drunk Driving Considered a Felony Offense versus a Misdemeanor?
Driving while intoxicated (DWI) in Texas is a serious criminal offense that can escalate from a misdemeanor to a felony under certain circumstances. Whether a DWI is charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depends on various factors, including prior DWI convictions, the presence of a child passenger, or causing serious bodily injury or death.
Texas Felony DWI Laws
In Texas, a DWI felony charge can be levied for third or subsequent DWI offenses, DWI with a child passenger, intoxication assault, or intoxication manslaughter. The transition from a misdemeanor DWI to a felony DWI marks a significant increase in potential penalties, including prison time, hefty fines, and long-term driver’s license suspension.
Will Prosecutors Charge Me With a Felony or Misdemeanor DWI?
The determination between facing a felony DWI or a misdemeanor DWI often hinges on prior convictions, the specific circumstances of the arrest, and the level of blood alcohol content (BAC). Prosecutors will assess the severity of the situation, including any aggravating factors, to decide on the appropriate charge.
Factors That Elevate a DUI from a Misdemeanor to a Felony
Several factors can elevate a DUI from a misdemeanor to a felony, including subsequent DWI offenses, driving with a BAC well above the legal limit, causing serious bodily injury, or driving with a minor as a passenger. Understanding these factors is crucial for anyone facing DWI charges.
What Is Driving While Intoxicated?
Driving while intoxicated in Texas is defined as operating a motor vehicle in a public place while not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, or a combination thereof, or having a BAC of 0.08% or higher.
Misdemeanor DWI Penalties
Misdemeanor DUI penalties can include jail time of up to one year, fines, community service, driver’s license suspension, and the requirement to install an ignition interlock device on any motor vehicle operated by the offender. The most common penalty for a misdemeanor DUI conviction is probation of 1-2 years with conditions like an ignition interlock device installed in your vehicle. Obviously, a misdemeanor offense is less severe than a felony, but it can still impact your life negatively in a lot of ways.
Prior Convictions for DWI
Prior DUI convictions significantly impact the severity of the charges and penalties for a new DWI offense. A third or subsequent DWI offense automatically elevates the charge to felony charges, with harsher penalties, including mandatory jail time. The felony DWI charge can be based on a prior DWI or DUI conviction from another state.
The Consequences of a Felony DWI (Felony DUI)
The consequences of a felony DWI (aka felony DUI) are far more severe. Criminal convictions for felony DUIs can include a maximum prison sentence 10 years in state prison, longer periods of driver’s license suspension, mandatory installation of an ignition interlock device, and substantial fines. A third DWI is automatically charged as a felony.
Any felony conviction will stay on your record and limit opportunities for the rest of your life. Under present law, there is no way to expunge a felony conviction without a pardon from the Governor (extremely rare).
DWI Involving Serious Injury – Intoxication Assault
Intoxication assault, or causing serious bodily harm while driving intoxicated, is a felony offense. This can include injuries that create a substantial risk of death or that cause serious permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ. In this case, the intoxicated driver could face a felony DWI charge, even a first offense.
DWI Resulting in Death – Intoxication Manslaughter
Intoxication manslaughter, or causing death while driving intoxicated, is an extremely serious charge that carries significant felony penalties, including the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence in a state prison.
High Blood Alcohol Content (BAC)
Driving with a high Blood Alcohol Content does not automatically lead to a felony DUI charge, but if the BAC is up over .15 (almost double the legal limit), it can lead to more severe penalties, even for a first-time DUI offense. A high BAC can result in an elevation to a Class A misdemeanor DUI, with higher fines and penalties. It can also limit options in plea negotiations.
Texas DWI With a Child Passenger
DWI with a child passenger is considered a state jail felony in Texas. The law applies when the child passenger is younger than 15 years old, and the offense carries additional penalties, including jail time and fines. Child endangerment like this can also lead to custody issues, so it is especially important not to ever be driving under the influence when you have a child passenger.
Penalty for a Second Texas DWI
A second DWI offense in Texas is typically considered a class A misdemeanor DUI and comes with harsher penalties than a first offense, including longer jail time, higher fines, and an extended period of driver’s license suspension.
Property Damage Resulting from DWI
DWI charges that involve property damage can escalate the severity of the offense, potentially leading to additional criminal charges and civil liability for the damages caused. Often, courts will require restitution to private parties and law enforcement for the time spent dealing with the scene of an accident.
Is Jail Time Mandatory for a DWI Felony Conviction?
Jail time is not always mandatory for a DWI offense – even a felony. However, jail time becomes increasingly likely with a subsequent offense or if aggravating factors are present along with the DWI charge. Aggravating circumstances like a serious injury to another driver or passenger can impact whether jail time is ordered by the judge, or required as part of a plea negotiation.
Collateral Consequences of a Texas DWI Conviction
Beyond legal penalties, a DWI conviction in Texas can have collateral consequences, including increased insurance rates, loss of employment opportunities, loss of driving privileges, and damage to one’s reputation. Even a first time conviction for a misdemeanor charge will remain on your record for life. Even though some cases do allow for the record to be sealed, many organizations, employers, and those involved with law enforcement can still view the DUI charge.
Contact ATX Legal – Texas Misdemeanor and Felony DWI Lawyer
If you’re facing DWI charges in Texas, whether a misdemeanor or a felony, it’s crucial to seek experienced legal representation. Serving Travis, Williamson and Hays counties, ATX Legal has a proven track record of defending clients against drunk driving offenses and navigating the complexities of Texas DWI laws. Fill out a contact form, or text 512-677-5003 for a free consultation regarding your DWI charge.