Harris County DA May Charge Driver with Felony Murder in Fatal Auto Accident

On February 2, 2020, Harris County sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene of a fatal accident on Bammel North Houston Road and Champions Forest Drive. According to the Houston Chronicle, a man in the turning lane of Bammel North Houston Road “attempted to make a left turn onto Champion Forest Drive” on a flashing yellow signal. At that same time, a pickup truck with the right-of-way drove through the intersection. The man then “slammed into” the pickup truck, killing its driver.

The Chronicle further reported that the sheriff’s office believed the first driver was intoxicated at the time of the collision, although it was “not immediately clear” why. What is apparently clear is the driver had three prior DWI charges. Based on this, the Chronicle said the Harris County District Attorney is prepared to charge the driver with murder.

The Difference Between Intoxication Manslaughter and Felony Murder

How does an apparent tragic accident lead to a murder charge? At first glance, this might seem ridiculous. For one thing, even if there is evidence the driver was drunk, Texas already has a non-murder charge to deal with this type of situation: intoxication manslaughter.

Under Section 49.08 of the Texas Penal Code, a person commits intoxication manslaughter if they operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated, and “by reason of that intoxication causes the death of another by accident or mistake.” Intoxication manslaughter is a second-degree felony. This means that if convicted, a defendant faces up to 20 years in prison.

So once again, you might be asking yourself: Why charge someone with murder if intoxication manslaughter applies? Because, as the San Antonio News-Express reported in 2013, prosecutors eager to capitalize on public outrage have opted to “upgrade” intoxication manslaughter cases to murder in order “to keep habitual offenders off the streets longer.” After all, murder is a first-degree felony, meaning a defendant can be put in prison for life.

But doesn’t murder require intent to kill? Not necessarily. Texas has what is known as the “felony murder” rule. Under Section 19.02 of the Penal Code, if a person “commits or attempts to commit a felony, other than manslaughter,” and in the course of such activities “commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual,” that is considered murder.

Basically, if you are committing a felony and manage to kill someone, even accidentally, you can be charged with that person’s murder. So for example, if a person was driving drunk with three prior DWI convictions–a felony under Texas law–and accidentally killed another driver, prosecutors may opt to treat the matter as murder rather than intoxication manslaughter.

Contact a Houston DWI Accident Defense Lawyer Today

Anytime you are involved in a possible DWI accident, prosecutors will look for any excuse to bring you up on criminal charges. That is why it is always in your best interest to work with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney who can advise you of your rights. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston, and League City today if you need to speak with a lawyer right away.