Skip to Main Content

How a Prior Drunk Driving Conviction Can Affect a Subsequent DWI Trial

Texas DWI laws provide for a number of sentencing “enhancements” based on the circumstances of a particular case. For example, if you have a prior DWI conviction and are arrested for drunk driving a second time, the new charge can be bumped up from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor. This is more than a technical change. With a Class B misdemeanor, you face a minimum jail term of 72 hours, but with the Class A charge that minimum increases to 30 days. And if you have two prior DWI convictions, the third becomes a third-degree felony charge–which carries a two-year minimum jail term.

Appeals Court: Jury Should Not Have Heard About Earlier DWI Case

At any trial for DWI there are two phases. During the first phase, the prosecution must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution accomplishes this, the second phase of the trial determines your sentence.

In the past, there has been some uncertainty as to whether the fact of a defendant’s prior DWI convictions belongs in the guilt/innocence or sentencing phase of a misdemeanor case. In May 2018, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals resolved this ambiguity. In Oliva v. State, the Court held that the “existence of a single prior conviction for misdemeanor DWI is a punishment issue.” This differs from the law defining a DWI with two prior convictions as a third-degree felony. In those cases, the Court of Criminal Appeals previously declared such offenses were “jurisdictional” and needed to be proven during the guilt/innocence phase.

So what does the Oliva decision mean in practical terms? Here is an intermediate appellate court decision from late 2018, Hartzell v. State, which provides a helpful illustration. In this case, prosecutors charged the defendant with DWI. The criminal information contained two allegations: First, that the defendant committed DWI in October 2014; second, that she was previously convicted of DWI in June 2012.

The defendant opted to have her guilt or innocence determined by a jury, but reserved decision on any sentence for the judge. Given this, the defendant objected to any discussion of her prior DWI conviction before the jury during the guilt-innocence phase, as it would be prejudicial. The trial judge overruled the objection, and throughout the trial the prosecution made reference to the earlier DWI. The jury ultimately found the defendant guilty, and the judge sentenced her to 39 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

But the appeals court reversed the conviction, citing the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision in Oliva, which occurred after the defendant’s trial. Under Oliva, the appeals court in this case said it was legal “error” for the jury to hear about the defendant’s prior DWI conviction during the guilt-innocence phase of the trial. And this error was not “harmless,” as the knowledge of the “prior DWI conviction substantially affected the jury’s verdict.” The defendant was therefore entitled to a new trial.

Speak with a Houston DWI Attorney Today

Any DWI charge is serious. But when you have a prior drunk driving conviction, a second or third charge can have life-altering consequences. That is why you should always work with an experienced Houston DWI defense lawyer. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you have been arrested for drunk driving and need immediate assistance.