Will I Be Punished More Severely for Drunk Driving If I Have a Prior DWI Conviction?

A drunk driving charge is not a minor matter. Texas law classifies a first-time DWI offense as a Class B misdemeanor. If convicted, this means a defendant faces a minimum jail term of 72 hours and a maximum fine of $2,000.

However, if the defendant has already been convicted once before of drunk driving, the second DWI conviction is elevated to a Class A misdemeanor. The minimum jail term increases accordingly from 3 days to 30 days, and the maximum fine is doubled from $2,000 to $4,000.

Houston Court Reduces DWI Conviction After Prosecutors Fail to Properly Introduce Evidence

If you are charged with a Class A misdemeanor, is is therefore essential for the prosecutor to prove you have a prior DUI conviction. This may seem obvious, but at least some Texas prosecutors have tried to make an end-run around their burden of proof. Recently, a Houston appeals court called out one such attempt.

In this case, two Houston Police Department officers found a man asleep in his parked, but still running, car. (You can be charged with DUI even if you are not actually driving.) The officers saw an open beer container in the car. The police later performed two breath tests on the man, which revealed he had a blood-alcohol level of more than twice the Texas legal limit.

Prosecutors charged the man, now the defendant, with DWI. The formal, written charges stated the defendant had one prior DWI conviction. This meant he was accused of a Class A misdemeanor.

But at trial, prosecutors never introduced any evidence related to the defendant’s prior conviction. Nor did the trial judge instruct the jury as to any prior conviction. Nevertheless, the jury found the defendant guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

It was not until a separate sentencing phase that prosecutors presented the jury with evidence related to the earlier DWI. Based on this information, the jury sentenced the defendant to 180 days in jail.

The Texas 14th District Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over DWI cases from Houston and Harris County, said this was the wrong decision. Proving a prior DWI conviction existed was an “essential element” of a Class A misdemeanor. It was not, as prosecutors attempted to argue, a “punishment enhancement” that could be presented to the jury post-conviction.

Since the jury never properly learned about the first DWI conviction, the appeals court reversed the jury’s verdict. The defendant was not completely exonerated. The appeals court said he was still guilty of a Class B misdemeanor–prosecutors did prove he committed a DWI–but the trial judge was ordered to conduct a new punishment hearing on the lesser offense.

Have You Been Accused of Drunk Driving?

Nobody disputes that drunk driving is a serious problem or that the law should punish offenders. But prosecutors and judges have no right to short-circuit a defendant’s basic constitutional rights. If you have been charged with drunk driving and need assistance from an experienced Houston DWI defense attorney, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.

The Law Office of Tad Nelson & Associates

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