Is “Necessity” a Possible Defense to a DWI Charge?

October 19th, 2021 by Tad Nelson in Drunk Driving, DWI

Drunk driving is considered a “strict liability” offense in Texas. This means that your mental state is generally irrelevant. The prosecution does not need to prove that you intended to drive drunk. The state only needs to prove (a) that you were legally intoxicated and (b) you were operating a motor vehicle.

Court of Criminal Appeals Holds Trial Judge Erred in Not Giving Drunk Driving Defendant’s Requested Jury Instruction

That said, there are some cases where a person charged with DWI may be entitled to raise a “necessity” defense. Texas law basically allows a defendant to present evidence from which a jury could find the defendant’s actions, while criminal, were nevertheless excusable.

To be more precise, the Texas necessity defense requires proof that the defendant “reasonably believed” their conduct was “immediately necessary to avoid imminent harm” and that avoiding said harm reasonably outweighed the “harm sought to be prevented by the law proscribing the conduct.”

It is important to understand, however, that raising a necessity defense requires confession to the underlying criminal conduct. So if you do wish to raise a necessity defense to DWI, you have to admit that you were, in fact, operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. You cannot simultaneously argue you were justified in driving drunk while continuing to deny you were driving drunk.

But as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) recently explained, a defendant’s confusion with respect to the facts does not automatically preclude a necessity defense. The case before the CCA, Maciel v. State, involved a woman charged with DWI in 2016. The defendant had been out drinking with her brother. The defendant knew she was intoxicated, so her brother started to drive them home. But he came ill during the trip. The defendant then decided to get into the driver’s seat for, she said, the purpose of moving the car off the road and into the closest available parking lot.

A local university police officer saw the defendant’s vehicle and initiated a traffic stop. This led to the defendant’s arrest for DWI. At trial, she attempted to raise a necessity defense, but the judge would not allow it. The trial judge believed the defendant had not provided the required “confession,” as she testified that she did not think she was actually “operating” the car when the officer stopped her.

The CCA concluded that the trial court took too strict a view of the law. The appellate court said a necessity defense did not require “an explicit admission from the defendant that she committed the crime.” Rather, there simply needed to be sufficient evidence for the jury to infer the defendant committed the crime. More to the point, the defendant here was not denying being behind the wheel of the car while drunk. She simply was unsure about whether her actions technically met the definition of “operate” as used in the DWI statute. Consequently, the CCA said the defendant was harmed by the trial court’s refusal to give a jury instruction on necessity.

Contact Galveston Drunk Driving Lawyer Tad Nelson Today

A DWI charge can have a significant impact on your life. That is why you should explore every legal avenue available for contesting a drunk driving charge. If you need guidance and representation from an experienced Houston DWI and drunk driving attorney, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.

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