AUSTIN, Texas (KETK) – Texas will soon be changing how it handles DWIs; a first-time offender will now have the option to have the charge deferred.
“Historically, DWI could not be deferred and a deferred probation is one that if the terms and conditions of the probation are completed then there is not a conviction on the person’s record,” said John Fleming, Nacogdoches County Attorney.
Fleming has been following this bill since the beginning.
“For years, prosecutors across the state of Texas wanted to offer (deferred charging) on DWIs, but the law prohibited them from doing so,” he said.”
Fleming said the 86th legislative session was the fifth time a bill to defer a DWI had been presented.
In the past, many prosecutors would “charge bargain,” meaning a DWI would be changed to another charge of equal penalty that would not carry the same weight on the person’s record.
This would be beneficial to someone hoping to go to nursing school, joining the military, law enforcement or becoming a teacher as a DWI could prevent a person from entering those fields.
Legislators were never able to pass laws allowing the option to defer a DWI because of the activism of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
“The balance that was struck between MADD and other players at the table is that that deferred adjudication DWI, if someone qualifies for it and receives that, in the event that they pick up a second DWI, that first DWI they got deferred for, which in theory allows for a conviction to be off someone’s record, it can be used to enhance that second DWI,” said Fleming. In other words you can resurrect it and that’s the beauty of this law and that’s probably how they struck the compromise to get it passed.”
Then the second charge is increased from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor.
Some say this law is advantageous for first time offenders, as it gives them a second chance.
“Driving while intoxicated is a serious offense. However there are circumstances where the state can have a wide range of punishment for that DWI,” said Judge Bob Inselmann, Angelina County 217th District.
In Judge Inselmann’s career, he has seen repeat offenders and one-time offenders alike.
“Those are the people you really want to look at, first-time offender, maybe somebody who made a mistake in college or somebody who’s older than that who may have gone to a wedding and done something stupid. If they do everything right then it will go away. In other words, it will be off their record,” Judge Inselmann said.
After the charge is deferred, the driver will be on probation and will be required to use an ignition interlock system.
The system will not allow a person to start their vehicle without blowing into a breathalyzer. Should they blow a .03 or higher the vehicle will not start.
This was a major selling point for MADD.
“This legislation gives prosecutors and judges another tool in their fight to end drunk driving,” said Scott Harrison with MADD. “Ignition interlocks are more effective than license suspension alone, since 50% to 75% of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license.”
According to MADD, ignition interlocks have stopped 309,597 ignition starts between December 1, 2006, and December 31, 2018.
As Judge Inselmann pointed out, this law can benefit the college student who made a mistake.
Stephen F. Austin State University Police Chief John Fields sees this as a way for students or regular citizens to continue their life without problems.
“Kids, especially college kids, they’re going to make mistakes and we don’t want to put them in a predicament that’s going to affect them for the rest of their life,” said Chief Fields. “Of course there’s consequences and accountability for what you do, but also giving those a second chance, not necessarily just college students, but citizens in general in the state of Texas.”
Chief Fields was quick to point out the deferral is only a second chance and not immunity from the law.
“If you mess up on your second chance, the consequences are greater so that will definitely keep you from making that wrong decision again,” he said.
Judges will still have the option to deny a deferral as the law states it is for “defendants charged with certain intoxication offenses” and not all DWI offenses.
The new law will go into effect September 1.