If you’re facing DWI charges and you’re worried about losing your case, you’re far from alone. Texas has some of the highest rates of DWI arrests in the nation, with over 64,000 arrests each year.
Unfortunately, these charges can pose serious threats to your lifestyle, your career, and your freedom, as convictions come with serious penalties.
So, is a DWI a felony, and if so, what can I do to protect myself from the worst-case scenario? We’re glad you asked. Here’s what you need to know about getting a DWI in Texas.
What Is a DWI?
DWI stands for driving while intoxicated. This is slightly different from a DUI, which stands for driving under the influence. The primary difference is that a DUI is considered a Class C misdemeanor, whereas a DWI is classified as a more serious Class B misdemeanor.
However, there are many circumstances that can change these classifications, which we will discuss. First, let’s understand the DWI charge process, prior to conviction.
Understanding the Process
When a police officer stops you, they may suspect you of driving under the influence. This will likely result in either a sobriety test of some kind.
You can refuse to participate in the test, but this will effectively result in an automatic suspension of your license and stay on your record. Therefore, unless your BAC is above 0.15, it’s best to cooperate in most cases.
If the officer suspects you of driving while intoxicated, they will arrest you and process you. They may not have a breathalyzer with them, but you will likely receive a blood, urine, or breath test at the station (breath tests are the most common). Under Texas law, this is measured by:
- 210 L of breath
- 100 mL of blood
- 67 mL of urine
The legal limit for operating a vehicle is 0.8% alcohol per the measurements above. If you exceed this, you will face DWI charges.
Make sure you know your rights, which the arresting officers must read to you by law. You do not have to answer any questions and you have the right to have legal representation with you at any point.
From there, you will be placed in a holding cell until the bond is set. A judge will set your bond, most likely within 24 hours of arrest. If you pay this bond, you are then free to leave until your scheduled court date, which you will receive.
At this first court date, you will enter your plea. Make sure you have proper representation prior to your arraignment.
If you plead guilty, you will need to attend further hearings related to your trial. A guilty plea will likely result in reduced sentencing, but it will still leave a conviction on your record. Either way, here are the penalties you may face, depending on your offense.
Penalties For DWI in Texas
First, let’s understand exactly what a DWI entails. If you are found to have a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 or higher, you will face DWI charges.
However, it becomes a DWI when your alcohol consumption affects your ability to drive. Therefore, somebody with a low alcohol tolerance (for medical or other reasons) may still face DWI charges under the 0.08 threshold.
Also, if you are under the age of 21, having any alcohol present in your system can result in a DWI charge, along with an underage drinking charge.
Finally, if you have any other charges pending along with your DWI case, then the penalties could increase dramatically. We’ll go over some common examples of this later. For now, here’s what you need to know about DWI penalties in Texas.
A first DWI charge in Texas is a misdemeanor offense carrying a possible penalty of up to a $2,000 fine, up to one year of license suspension, and a minimum of three days in jail.
Moreover, this jail time includes the time you spent in a holding cell after your arrest. However, you could still face up to 180 days in jail for the DWI charge alone, not to mention any subsequent charges. Remember, your employer is under no obligation to hold your job for you while you are in jail or without a license, even if it is only for a few days.
Either way, a first offense could still devastate anyone’s life. Avoiding a conviction is the only protection you have once you’ve been charged.
A second DWI offense is also considered a misdemeanor in Texas, with a potential fine of up to $4,000, up to two years of license suspension, and a minimum of one month in jail. Still, you could face jail time of up to one year upon a second conviction, and you will lose your license for at least one year.
Regardless, these charges are quite severe and could ruin anyone’s career or personal responsibilities. Avoid a second conviction at all costs, as a prior conviction will demonstrate a pattern of behavior to prosecutors and judges, often leading to harsher sentences.
Is a DWI a Felony?
You will receive a felony charge after your second DWI conviction. A third or fourth DWI will be considered a felony, assuming at least two of your previous charges resulted in a conviction.
If you are convicted of a third DWI charge, you will face up to a $10,000 fine, two to 10 years in prison, and a loss of your driver’s license for up to two years. This will be a felony conviction, which you may have to notify future employers of when applying for jobs.
However, there are instances where a first or second offense can result in higher charges than the typical Class B misdemeanor. Let’s talk about some of those examples.
Other Common Additional Charges
Again, in most cases, a first or second offense will be considered a misdemeanor. However, you may still face other misdemeanor charges or upgraded misdemeanor charges under certain circumstances. Here are the most common examples.
Open Container Violations
It’s important to note that having an open container present in your vehicle at the time of your arrest is considered a separate charge. If this is your first violation, it will raise your mandatory minimum of three days in confinement to six days.
To be clear, this requires an open container to be present in the passenger area of the vehicle. If you go to a restaurant and don’t finish a bottle of wine, placing it in your trunk is legal. However, an open container of alcohol in your glove compartment, under your seat, or accessible to the driver is a violation.
Moreover, an open container violation is a crime on its own and will carry similar charges to a DWI, even if you are not intoxicated at the time of the arrest.
Class A Misdemeanor Charges
A typical first offense will result in Class B misdemeanor charges. However, if your BAC was found to be above 0.15 at the time of the arrest, then the prosecutor will likely increase your charges to a Class A misdemeanor.
Essentially, this doubles the fine to $4,000 for a first offense and carries up to one year in jail time. For a second offense, it’s even worse, but if you have any existing criminal record, charges will likely lean toward the higher end.
Can a First-Time Offense Be a Felony?
There are many cases where a first-time DWI charge may include felony charges. However, this typically requires additional charges beyond the DWI itself. The most common examples include:
- Child endangerment
- Vehicular homicide
- Property damage
- Reckless driving
While there are plenty of other examples of felonies, these are the most likely charges someone may face along with a DWI.
The reason child endangerment is a common charge is that if you drive while intoxicated in Texas with a minor under the age of 15 present in the vehicle, this is considered child endangerment. This is considered a felony with fines of up to $10,000 and up to two years of jail time, even for a first conviction.
Also, if your alleged DWI results in a car crash, this could lead to charges including property damage. If you hit somebody with your car and it was alleged to be on purpose, this would be considered aggravated assault. If the DWI incident results in a death, this could lead to vehicular manslaughter charges.
Finally, reckless driving is arguably the most likely charge. If your BAC is well above the limit, if you were caught swerving or excessively speeding, or if your driving resulted in a major crash, you could also face reckless driving charges.
While this is usually a misdemeanor offense, prosecutors may charge it as a felony, which is more likely with a coinciding DWI charge.
Other Effects of a DWI Conviction
If three days in jail doesn’t sound like the worst punishment in the world, that should be the least of your concerns. Even a first DWI conviction can cause serious problems in your life, especially if you have work or family obligations.
First, Texas isn’t exactly known for its public transportation system. If you rely on driving to meet your personal or professional obligations, a six- or 12-month license suspension can cause serious issues. You can petition for a partial reinstatement to allow you to commute to work, but it’s not guaranteed.
Second, DWIs don’t leave your record. After a conviction, any employer conducting a background check or any prosecutor choosing sentencing guidelines will see this conviction. This can result in missed opportunities or harsher future sentences.
Also, there’s no telling what the other effects will include until you face them. Months in jail, long-term license suspensions, a criminal record, and hefty fines can affect everyone differently, whether it’s financially, psychologically, or otherwise.
Essentially, a conviction can do a lot of damage, even if it isn’t classified as a felony.
How Can I Protect Myself?
If you face DWI charges, regardless of the offense, you need a proper legal defense. This means avoiding the public defender whose office may face over 1,000 cases a year and instead opting for an experienced DWI attorney.
You wouldn’t go to a podiatrist for a nose-related medical issue, so why would you hire a lawyer who doesn’t specialize in your specific criminal defense needs? The more specialized your attorney is, the better.
This way, you can come up with the proper legal strategy before your arraignment, have a dedicated point of contact to help you through the process, and potentially avoid a conviction altogether. If you do face a conviction or have one on your record, the right legal assistance can even help you expunge your record, which can avoid the horrible effects mentioned above.
Finally, if you can avoid or expunge a conviction, it will not appear on your record. Avoiding or eliminating a criminal record will keep doors open for you in the future and prevent worse penalties upon conviction. There is no substitute for proper legal assistance.
Get the Help You Need Today
Now that we’ve answered the question “is a DWI a felony?”, you can see why the question is so common. While it isn’t considered a felony, a conviction will leave you with a criminal record, mandatory jail time, and other harsh consequences. Therefore, it’s essential to have the right legal assistance on your side when you face such charges.
Keep reading our blog for our latest legal tips, and don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or for help with your legal defense!