DWI in Texas: What does it really mean?

DWI in TexasIt sounds simple enough: driving while intoxicated. A common thought is that it means what it says: driving while intoxicated.

But how does Texas law really define this offense?

First, driving doesn’t really mean driving. Rather, Texas law states that “operating” a motor vehicle in a public place while intoxicated is DWI. Courts have interpreted this to mean a lot less than actual driving of a motor vehicle. For example, a person behind the wheel with the ability to control the vehicle can be considered operating under the law. A person asleep in the front seat with the keys in the ignition, even with the car turned off, has been considered operating under the Texas statute.

What does “intoxicated” mean?

Most people associate this with being drunk or impaired. Again, Texas law defines “intoxication” very differently than one might think. It is defined by the Texas Penal Codes as: (A) not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into the body; or (B) having an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more.

As one can see, this is a very broad, seemingly subjective, and multifaceted definition. It states one can be considered intoxicated by a: not having normal use of ones mental faculties, b: not having normal use of one’s physical faculties or c: having an alcohol concentration above .08 at the time of operating a motor vehicle in a public place. If a jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt any one of these three definitions it is legally enough for a conviction for DWI. In fact, in a trial, some jurors could believe a defendant is guilty because he did not have normal mental faculties and other jurors, in the same trial, could believe the defendant did not have normal physical faculties. If all of the jurors agree on intoxication by any of the three definitions, Texas law allows a conviction. There are many cases where there is no breath or blood test thereby making the State attempt to prove their case by the first two “not having normal use” definitions. This is where the field sobriety tests are normally used against a person charged to attempt to show that they did not have normal mental and/or physical faculties while they were operating a motor vehicle.

Many people wrongly believe that DWI is associated with blood alcohol concentration only. This gives a false sense of security as many drinkers rely on alcohol level charts and try to figure out how much they can drink and stay below the legal limit. As one can see from above, this is totally irrelevant when an officer stops you, smells alcohol and begins giving field sobriety tests trying to ascertain loss of normal physical and mental abilities.

So what to do? The reality is that drinking any amount of alcohol and then driving puts you at risk of being put though field sobriety tests and possibly arrested if you are stopped. This is especially true with the increased specialty enforcement of DWI throughout Texas.