A night out on the town can have years of consequences, both for injured parties and for the driver. The Texas Department of Transportation estimates that every 20 minutes, someone is hurt or killed in an alcohol-related accident in the state.
There are many financial and criminal penalties for people found guilty of driving while intoxicated (DWI), but what happens if the charges are dropped or the driver was proven innocent? Does the arrest remain on the driver’s court record?
DWI in Texas
First, it’s important to understand some basics of Texas DWI law:
- Drivers can be charged with DWI if they have a BAC (blood or breath alcohol concentration) of 0.08% or higher OR if their mental or physical abilities are impaired because of alcohol or drugs.
- Texas is one of 12 states where DWI, or sobriety, checkpoints are not allowed. However, police officers can pull over motorists for speeding or driving erratically and conduct a sobriety test.
- DWI fines range from up to $2,000 – $10,000 and carry jail or prison time (up to two years in prison for third-time offenders); the driver’s license is suspended, and the driver may be required to perform community service.
Part of a Permanent Record?
In Texas, if a person is found guilty of DWI, the conviction remains on the driver’s permanent record. It is not removed even years after the offense is committed.
However, not every driver charged with DWI is found guilty, and sometimes the charges are dropped. In these cases, it’s understandable that the driver would like his or her public record “wiped clean” of the charge. There is potentially a lot at stake. Background checks for employment or a mortgage application, for example, will reveal a DWI arrest even if the driver was not found guilty. There is a solution for these drivers: Take the necessary actions to have their record expunged.
What Expungement Is and How It Works in Texas
Expungement is a legal term that means “erase or remove completely.” Once a person’s DWI arrest is expunged, no mention of the charges will appear on his or her public record. It will be, from the court’s perspective, as though the arrest did not happen. Here are some important things to know:
- Expungement is only possible if:
- The DWI charges were dismissed or never filed;
- The accused driver was found not guilty;
- A DWI conviction was overturned on appeal; or
- The driver was a minor, fulfilled any court obligations and did not have subsequent DWIs.
- Or the driver successfully completed a pre-trial intervention program
- Expungement does not happen automatically. Like many court-related activities, there is a process to follow, and it can take time and many steps to accomplish.
- The expungement process cannot begin until at least 180 days after the arrest (the waiting period is determined by severity of the offense). Then, the steps include:
- Filing a petition with the district court where the alleged offense or the arrest occurred. As this example from Harris County shows, the petitioner will have to follow instructions carefully and pay a filing fee. The petition will need to include personal information about the petitioner, all court documents related to the arrest and the names and addresses of every party involved.
- A date for a hearing before the court is scheduled. The earliest possible court date is 30 days after the petition was filed.
- The driver appears in court for the hearing before a judge.
- The judge determines whether to grant an expungement.
- Once an expungement order is signed by the judge, it is the petitioner’s responsibility to send official copies to relevant agencies, i.e., the county court office.
One important note: An expungement only removes a DWI arrest from court records. It does not remove all public mention of a person’s arrest, such as in a newspaper article.
Also, expunctions are tricky. You must list all agencies that may have records of the arrest or they will not be included in the order to expunge the records and may still be appear after an expunction is finalized. Then the person spent a money trying to do it himself and there is no way to fix it later.
The “Second Chance” Law
There’s another option for some first-time DWI offenders under Texas’ so-called “Second Chance” law. Signed by the governor in 2017, it permits certain first-time, low-level DWI offenders to petition the court to seal, or non-disclose, those records.
While expungement permanently removes a DWI arrest from court records, records that are sealed still exist, but are not easily available to the public. However, sealed records can be opened with a court order.
There are numerous criteria to meet with this option, and as with expungement, there’s a process to follow. However, for people who qualify – including those whose offenses occurred before the law was passed — it could be worth pursuing.
How a KingWood Crminal Defense Lawyer Can Help
Some people charged with DWI want to handle everything themselves and are quick to accept any offer from the prosecutor. However, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can often negotiate a better deal than the driver could on his or her own. There are many reasons DWI charges can be reduced or dropped altogether:
- There was no probable cause to pull the driver over;
- The sobriety test was conducted incorrectly; or
- There were several people in the vehicle and the police can’t prove who was driving.
With so much at stake – fines, suspended driver’s license, jail or prison sentence, increased insurance rates and damage to one’s reputation – it makes sense to have an expert’s help. If the driver qualifies for expungement, a lawyer can ensure the petition is accurate and complete, troubleshoot any problems and represent the driver at the hearing.
With criminal law, experience matters. Andrew Williams has been in practice for more than 20 years and is Texas board certified in criminal law. His career is devoted to representing people accused of committing a crime and he has handled more than 500 DWI and other criminal cases.
He is certified in administering the same field sobriety tests used by police officers, which gives him unique knowledge of the process. Andrew passionately fights for the best possible outcome for his clients. If you’ve been charged with DWI, contact his office at 281-358-9111 or online to learn more about his practice.