Court of Criminal Appeals Throws Out “Deadly Weapon” Finding in DWI Accident Case

In a criminal prosecution arising from a DWI accident, a court will often make an “affirmative finding” that the defendant “used or exhibited a deadly weapon” in the commission of the offense. The “deadly weapon” in this context is the car itself. And while not all felony DWI cases require such a finding, when one is made, it can have a significant impact on the disposition of the defendant’s sentencing and future opportunity for parole.

Post-Accident Conduct Not Sufficient to Prove Defendant Drove in a “Reckless” Manner

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently issued a decision, Couthren v. State, overturning a jury’s decision to make an affirmative deadly weapon finding. The Court’s decision was largely tied to the specific facts of the case. Nevertheless, it may provide guidance to trial courts in the future as to when such findings are appropriate.

This case began early in the morning of June 16, 2012. The defendant was driving down Highway 6 outside of Bryan when a pedestrian “stepped in front of his vehicle,” according to the Court of Criminal Appeals. The pedestrian’s head struck the windshield of the defendant’s car.

The defendant proceeded to put the pedestrian in his car with the intent of taking him to the hospital. However, the defendant decided to stop at his girlfriend’s house first to “exchange vehicles” with her. Apparently, there was some sort of altercation at the girlfriend’s house, which caused local police to respond.

The officers said they observed signs of intoxication from the defendant. They also found the “bloody and incoherent” pedestrian still inside the defendant’s car. The defendant told the officers what happened, including an admission that he had been drinking the previous day.

Prosecutors eventually charged the defendant with felony DWI. A jury found the defendant guilty and made a deadly weapon finding. The trial court sentenced the defendant to six years in prison.

The only issue before the Court of Criminal Appeals was the deadly weapon finding. By a 5-4 vote, the Court agreed with the defendant that the evidence did not support the finding. Judge Bert Richardson, writing for the majority, noted there was “very little evidence about the manner in which [the defendant] used his motor vehicle during the commission” of the DWI. There was no eyewitness testimony, other than that of the defendant, and the police never conducted an investigation at the scene of the accident. There was no way to know if the plaintiff was speeding or otherwise driving in a reckless manner prior to the accident. Indeed, even the prosecution conceded at trial it was possible the collision with the pedestrian was “unavoidable.”

The state argued, however, that the jury could still make a deadly weapon finding based on the defendant’s post-accident driving, namely his decision to put the defendant in his car rather than call 911. Judge Richardson rejected that argument. He said while the “decision to not take [the pedestrian] may have been reckless, this does not demonstrate that [the defendant] operated his vehicle in a manner that this Court has recognized as reckless or dangerous” for purposes of a deadly weapon finding.

Speak with a Galveston or League City DWI Accident Lawyer Today

Every DWI accident case has its own set of facts that need to be carefully scrutinized. At the end of the day, the burden is on the prosecution to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. An experienced Houston DWI accident defense attorney can help you hold the state to that burden and ensure you are not wrongfully punished. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you have been involved in an accident and need legal advice.