2012 DWI Case Laws

The following is a guest blog post by the Law Firm of Randolph Wolf. The views expressed are the opinions of the author and do not reflect those of The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp.

When rulings in cases prove to be significant for interpreting law, they are known as “case law.” The State of Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals heard the following three DWI related cases this year, all of which have proven to be notable.  This article will highlight those three cases and explore the case law’s relevance in the context of Texas DWI law.

Kirsch v. State

The court in Kirsch v. State held that it was improper for the trial court to define the term “operate” in a 2012 DWI case. The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the trial court erred by defining the term “operate” as “to exert personal effort to cause the vehicle to function.”  The defense argued that the Texas penal code did not define the term “operate” and that the prosecutor’s definition of the term “operate” resulted in the jury finding his client guilty on the DWI charge. The Court of Appeals found the harm to be egregious and that it warranted reversal and a new trial.

The ruling is important to future DWI cases, as it establishes that a jury must come to their own understanding of what it means to operate a vehicle. In the above instance, the defendant was charged with DWI after he was found attempting to kick start his motorcycle at a traffic light. In other instances, defendants charged with DWI in parked vehicles without the engine running have been found “not guilty,” as the State was unable to prove the defendant was “operating” the vehicle at the time. Determining the meaning of “operating” a vehicle in Texas will continue to be left to the jury, at least for the time being.

Mahaffey v. State

The defendant was charged with DWI after a traffic stop for merging left without a turn signal. The trial court found the defendant guilty of the DWI.  The defendant appealed the trial court’s  decision, arguing that officer had no legal right for the initial traffic stop as no turn signal was required to merge lanes.  The Court of Appeals upheld the decision, holding that it was reasonable for the officer to conclude that the defendant had committed a traffic violation.

The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, reversed, holding that the arresting officer failed to articulate specific facts that supported a reasonable suspicion that defendant had violated Tex. Transp. Code 545.104(a). The Court of Criminal Appeals found that there was no reasonable suspicion for the initial stop and that the trial court erred by failing to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the stop.

This is an important case for DWI law and criminal law in Texas. Had the Criminal Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court’s decision, it could have allowed for police to make similar claims of “believing they witnessed a traffic offense” in order to pull over any vehicle at any time in the future.  For the time being, it stands that officers will need a legal traffic offense or reasonable suspicion in order to justify a traffic stop.

Sanchez v. State

Houston police arrested the defendant in Harris County on suspicion of DWI. After refusing a breath test, the officers sought and obtained a warrant for a blood test to determine BAC from the Judge of County Court at Law of Montgomery County, the court closest to the officers’ current location.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress the blood test results, arguing the results were obtained without a valid warrant. The issue presented was whether the judge of a county court, acting as a magistrate, may sign a search warrant to be executed in a county other than the one in which he serves.  The motion was denied by the trial court and the defendant was found guilty.

On appeal, it was determined that statutory county court judges do not have statewide authority and cannot issue warrants to be served in counties other than their own. The Court of Appeals held that legislature limited a county court judge’s authority to acting within the county of the court. For this reason the warrant was invalid, and the DWI conviction was overturned.