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How Texas’ “Three Strikes” Law Can Spur a Life Sentence for DWI

Updated: Nov 21, 2023 @ 3:04 am

Less than 1 minute Reading Time: Minutes

The penalties for drunk driving in Texas escalate with each subsequent conviction. For example, a first offense for DWI is a Class B misdemeanor under the Texas Penal Code. A conviction carries a penalty of between 3 days and 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $3,000. But if the defendant had one prior DWI conviction, conviction on the second offense carries a maximum penalty of up to 1 year in jail and a $4,500 fine.

Once you get to a third drunk driving charge, however, you are now in felony DWI territory. A third DWI is charged as a third-degree felony under the Penal Code. This substantially escalates the maximum punishment for a conviction from 1 year in jail to up to 10 years in state prison (and a $10,000 fine).

But things can get even worse. If a defendant has two prior “sequential” felony convictions, a conviction of a third felony triggers the Texas “three strikes” law. In other words, if a person has two prior felony convictions and is then found guilty of a felony DWI, instead of facing 2 to 10 years in prison, their sentence must either be life in prison or 2 to 99 years in prison. Application of the three strikes law is not tied to the severity of the final felony conviction, so yes, even a felony DWI is enough to send someone to prison for the rest of their life.

Texas Appeals Court Throws Out 99-Year Sentence, Reduces Felony DWI to Misdemeanor

At the same time, the prosecution still has to prove a defendant committed two prior qualifying felonies in order to support the drastically enhanced three-strikes sentence. And this is not always as cut-and-dry as you might think. A recent decision from the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals, Swanzy v. State, provides a good example.

This case began in 2021, when a grand jury indicted the defendant for third-degree felony DWI. The defendant exercised his right to a jury trial. During the guilt-or-innocence phase, the jury determined the prosecution met its burden of proof as to the defendant committing at least his third DWI. The jury then moved to consider the defendant’s punishment. During this second phase of the trial, the district attorney had to prove–beyond a reasonable doubt–that the defendant had at least two of the prior, sequential felonies alleged in order to impose a “three strikes” sentence.

The jury found the prosecution met its burden and sentenced the defendant to 99 years in prison.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial judge should have entered a verdict of not guilty on the underlying felony DWI charge. As previously discussed, third-degree felony DWI in Texas requires two prior DWI convictions. Here, the prosecution argued the defendant was previously convicted of DWI in Texas in 1979 and 1982, respectively. Yet the defense noted on appeal that the 1979 DWI case did not result in a final conviction and therefore could not be used to support elevating the 2021 charge to a felony.

Essentially what happened was this. In 1979, prosecutors charged the defendant with a misdemeanor DWI. The defendant pleaded guilty. The trial court then sentenced the defendant to a term of probation. The defendant completed that probation and the court then dismissed the charge.

In the present case, the Ninth District agreed with the defendant that the 1979 DWI was not a “predicate conviction” that could be used to treat his current DWI as a felony. But since the defendant did not challenge the evidence showing he was driving while intoxicated at the time of his 2021 arrest, an outright acquittal was not justified either. Instead, the Ninth District reformed the judgment to reflect a conviction of a Class A misdemeanor for a second offense DWI.

The Ninth District then returned the case to the district court with instructions to conduct a new punishment hearing, which the defendant may elect to have decided by a new jury. But considering the maximum penalty for a Class A misdemeanor in Texas is 1 year in jail–as opposed to 99 years in prison under the “three strikes” enhancement–the defendant is no doubt satisfied with this resolution.

You Can Fight a DWI Charge in Texas

As you can see, a DWI conviction can stay on your record for decades and potentially be used against you in a subsequent case. So it is important to work with an experienced Houston drunk driving defense lawyer if you are facing DWI charges–even for the first time. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today to schedule a free case review with a member of our team.

Houston DWI Lawyer Tad A Nelson is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the TBLS.

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