Drunk driving accidents can lead to serious criminal and civil consequences. And there are times when the intersection of civil and criminal can lead to conflict. We recently discussed a decision from the Texas First District Court of Appeals in Houston on the subject of whether a person accused of criminal DWI can be forced to answer civil discovery requests in a separate lawsuit brought by the accident victims. Now a second Texas appeals court has weighed in on the issue.
Appeals Court: Civil Judge Abused Discretion in Compelling Defendant to Answer Questions
This most recent case, In re Nichol, arises from a September 2017 car accident. In the criminal proceeding, a grand jury indicted the defendant on four charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon based on allegations he was intoxicated at the time of the accident. The four victims of said alleged assault separately filed a civil lawsuit against the same defendant.
The defendant’s criminal trial is scheduled to begin later in October 2019. Meanwhile, the four civil plaintiffs served a series of discovery requests on the plaintiff. Basically, these are requests for information on the events leading up to the accident. The defendant declined to answer these requests, asserting his privilege against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The civil plaintiffs initially agreed to stay, or delay, further discovery until the resolution of the defendant’s criminal case. But the plaintiffs later reversed course, arguing that they needed the defendant to answer certain questions in order to ascertain the potential civil liability of other potential defendants. Notably, the civil plaintiffs were contemplating a Dram Shop Act lawsuit against a bar that the defendant may have visited just before the accident. From the plaintiffs’ perspective, any further delay in discovery might prevent them from adding the bar as a defendant prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations.
The trial judge in the civil case eventually ordered the defendant to answer the questions of “where you had been just prior to the wreck, where you were going, and the purpose of the trip.” But to preserve the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights in his criminal trial, the judge said the defendant’s answers to these questions would remain sealed. That is to say, neither the court nor the civil plaintiffs could disclose his answers to law enforcement or the district attorney.
The defendant subsequently filed a petition with the Texas Eighth District Court of Appeals, asking it to quash the trial judge’s order. The appeals court agreed it was an “abuse of discretion” on the trial judge’s part. In cases like this, the appeals court said it was only acceptable to force a defendant to testify in a civil matter when “the prosecuting agency grants that witness immunity.”
Contact a Houston, Galveston, or League City DWI Accident Lawyer Today
Every defendant has the right to remain silent when facing criminal charges. This includes DWI or related charges arising from a car accident. If you have been involved in an accident and need legal advice on how best to protect your legal rights, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.