Court of Criminal Appeals Upholds 75-Year Sentence in Fatal DWI Accident

When drunk driving leads to a deadly accident, the driver faces some of the most serious penalties available under Texas law. In some cases, the state may charge the driver with felony murder. While DWI accidents are rarely intentional, when a person dies during the commission of another felony (i.e., the DWI itself), it can be tried as murder.

Police Detective Ruled Qualified to Testify as Accident Reconstruction Expert

For instance, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently upheld the conviction and 75-year prison sentence of a San Antonio man convicted of accidentally killing a motorcyclist in an early-morning accident. The defendant appealed his conviction. The specific issue before the Court of Criminal Appeals was whether the trial judge erred in allowing a police detective to testify as an accident reconstruction specialist.

Here is briefly what happened. The defendant left a bar around 3 a.m. on the morning in question. Shortly thereafter, the defendant’s car collided with a motorcycle at an intersection. Two other drivers came upon the accident scene and called for help when they saw the motorcyclist “was badly injured and lying near his motorcycle.” These witnesses also said the defendant was seen “stumbling near his car which had crashed into a building.”

The motorcyclist later died at the hospital. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death was “multiple traumatic blunt force injuries” consistent with a motor vehicle accident.

A San Antonio police detective investigated the case. The detective later testified in court that he had “investigated at least a thousand” such cases. He also had approximately 500 hours of training in “accident reconstruction,” although he “never took a course specifically related to motorcycle accident reconstruction.”

The detective conducted a “visual inspection” of the accident scene. He then used specialized tools to “map the locations of the vehicles, debris, curb strikes and scrapes,” and take other measurements. From this, the detective prepared a diagram of the accident. Based on this reconstruction, the detective testified at trial that this was “more or less” a head-on collision caused by the defendant. More precisely, the detective said the defendant “failed to negotiate” a curve in the road just before the intersection, an act that was consistent with alcohol impairment.

Before the Court of Criminal Appeals, the defendant argued the detective’s testimony should not have been admitted. The Court disagreed. It held the detective’s testimony was both qualified and reliable under Texas rules.

With respect to the detective’s qualifications, the Court of Criminal Appeals noted that although the officer “had never taken a class that focused on motorcycle-involved crashes, he knew how to analyze an accident scene based on debris, vehicle damage,” and other factors. And while the detective may not have been qualified to “conduct speed and energy calculations for accidents involving motorcycles,” that was not relevant in this case, as the detective never offered opinions at trial on that subject.

As to reliability, the question here is whether the detective’s testimony related to “hard science.” The Court of Criminal Appeals has established different standards of reliability for testimony involving hard science versus other fields. The defendant argued that accident reconstruction was a hard science, and the detective’s testimony failed to comply with the “scientific method” required in such cases.

Again, the Court disagreed. It said the detective’s testimony was based on his “training and experience in evaluating physical evidence at crash scenes more than on a hard scientific inquiry.” The testimony was therefore reliable based on the standard for “soft” sciences.

Speak with a Houston DWI Accident Defense Lawyer Today

As you can see, Texas law enforcement takes fatal DWI accidents quite seriously. So if you are facing drunk driving charges following an auto accident, it is critical you seek out advice from an experienced Galveston or League City criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need immediate assistance.