Texas Drunk Driving Laws and Violation Penalties

Learn about the penalties for a DWI/DUI conviction in Texas.

By , Attorney (University of San Francisco School of Law)

Texas officially uses the term "driving while intoxicated" (DWI) instead of "driving under the influence" (DUI). However, some people still use DWI and DUI interchangeably to refer to drunk or drugged driving.

This article covers Texas's DWI laws and the penalties you'll face for a first, second, third, and felony conviction.

Texas's DWI Laws

Texas's DWI laws prohibit all motorists from operating a motor vehicle:

Generally, you are considered "intoxicated" if you "lack the normal use of mental or physical faculties" as the result of ingesting alcohol, drugs, or any other substance. (It's also illegal to operate a boat while intoxicated (BWI) in Texas.)

For underage drivers (those under 21 years old), Texas has "zero tolerance" laws making it illegal to get behind the wheel with any detectable amount of alcohol in their system.

Getting a DWI in Texas Without Actually Driving

In Texas, a motorist can get a DWI even without actually driving: The statute defines DWI as "operating" a vehicle while intoxicated or with a prohibited BAC. So while driving is sufficient for a conviction, it isn't required.

Texas courts have said the term "operate" is very broad and includes any action to "affect the functioning" of a vehicle in a manner that "enables its use."

Texas Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limits and Per Se DUIs

A drunk driving offense based on BAC—as opposed to the driver's level of impairment—is known as a "per se" DWI. The amount of alcohol a person must drink to reach the legal limit depends on a number of factors such as gender, body size, and the number and strength of drinks.

Texas DWI Penalties for a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Conviction

Texas DWI penalties vary based on the circumstances of the case. But the range of allowable penalties depends, in large part, on how many prior convictions the offender has. Here are what the potential sentences generally look like for a first, second, and third DWI.

1st Offense 2nd Offense 3rd Offense

Jail

72 hours to six months (12-month maximum with BAC of .15% or more)

30 days to 12 months

2 to 10 years

Fines

Up to $2,000 (or up to $4,000 with BAC .15% or more)

Up to $4,000

Up to $10,000

License Suspension

90 days to 12 months

180 days to 2 years

180 days to 2 years

Ignition Interlock Device (IID)

Only as a condition of obtaining an "occupational license"

1 year (with a prior conviction within 5 years)

1 year (with a prior conviction within 5 years)

Texas's Aggravated (Felony) DWI Laws

In Texas, a DWI can be charged as a felony under certain circumstances.

Third or Subsequent DWIs are Felonies in Texas

When an offender has two or more prior DWI convictions within the past ten years, the third offense generally can be charged as a third-degree felony. (However, if it has been more than five years since the most recent prior, the third offense will be a misdemeanor.) Third-degree felonies carry two to ten years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.

Minor Passengers

Operating a vehicle while intoxicated is a "state jail felony" when the driver has at least one passenger who's younger than 15 years old. Convicted motorists are looking at 180 days to two years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.

Felony Charges for DWIs Involving Injuries and Deaths

Any DWI—even a first offense—can be charged as a felony if the driver ends up hurting (causing "serious bodily harm") or killing someone while operating a vehicle under the influence. Depending on whether someone died or was seriously injured, these offenses are called "intoxication assault" and "intoxication manslaughter."

Intoxicated assault is generally a third-degree felony. A conviction carries two to ten years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.

Intoxicated manslaughter is normally a second-degree felony. Second-degree felonies carry two to 20 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.

Texas's Special Zero-Tolerance Rules for Minors (DUIA)

Because it's illegal for anyone who's underage to consume alcohol in Texas, the state has enacted alcohol "zero tolerance" rules for drivers under age 21. Underage drivers with "any detectable amount of alcohol" in their system can be convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol ("DUIA"), whether they are actually intoxicated or not. And minors who meet the DWI standard for intoxication as described above can be convicted of both DWI and DUIA.

DUIA by Minors Under 17 Years of Age

The consequences of receiving a DUIA vary depending on the driver's age. For a motorist who's less than 17 years old, DUIA is a class C misdemeanor. A first conviction carries a fine of up to $500, a minimum 60-day license suspension, and 20 to 40 hours of community service. Attendance in an "Alcohol Awareness Course"—for the minor and possibly the parent—is also required.

DUIA by Minors 17 to 20 Years of Age

For a motorist aged 17 to 20, DUIA is a Class B misdemeanor. Depending on whether the underage driver has prior infractions, a conviction carries up to $2,000 in fines, jail time from 72 hours to 180 days, and a minimum 1-year license suspension. The suspension can be reduced to 90 days when coupled with community supervision and the use of an IID.

Implied Consent and Refusing a Blood or Breath Test in Texas

Texas's "implied consent" laws require all drivers lawfully arrested for a DWI to submit to a blood or breath test. Motorists who refuse testing face license suspension for 180 days to two years, depending on the circumstances.

For purposes of determining what is a second or third refusal, prior DWI convictions, refusals, and failed BAC tests (.08% or greater) within the past ten years are counted.

Plea Bargaining in Texas DUI Cases

If you get charged with a DWI in Texas, you might be hoping to get the charge dismissed altogether. However, unless the court throws out evidence that's critical to prove the charge, it's unlikely a prosecutor will agree to a complete dismissal.

But in some cases, a reduction to a "wet reckless" charge is possible. A wet reckless is just a reckless driving offense that involves drugs or alcohol.

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