In 2016, Texas tragically led the nation in traffic fatalities with 3,776 (NHTSA, 2017). Alarmingly, 44% of these deaths involved a driver with at least a .01% blood alcohol content (BAC), which is 11% above the national average of 33% (NHTSA, 2017). Furthermore, 25% of these deaths involved a driver with a BAC of .15% or greater, which is almost twice the legal per se limit (NHTSA, 2017). The national average in this category is 19% (NHTSA, 2017). Viewed on their own, these statistics are devastating. When compared to 2015, however, it is clear that Texas’ grave impaired driving problem is not getting better, it is getting worse. In 2015, 1,562 people died in alcohol-related crashes in Texas (NHTSA, 2016) compared to 1,676 in 2016 (NHTSA, 2017). Also in 2015, 895 people died in crashes involving a driver with a BAC over .15% (NHTSA, 2016) compared to 949 in 2016 (NHTSA, 2017). Impaired driving is a serious problem for teenage drivers and children. Nationwide in 2015, 26% of drivers aged 15-20 involved in a fatal crash had a BAC of .01% or higher and 21% had a BAC of .08% or higher (NHTSA, 2017). Put another way, 80% of the under-21 year old drivers who were killed with alcohol in their system had a BAC of .08% or higher – which is illegal even for those legally permitted to drink. All of these statistics together paint a terrifying picture of Texas’ increasingly serious alcohol-impaired driving problem.
With the nationwide opioid epidemic and legalization of marijuana in many states, driving under the influence of drugs is a growing problem. In 2016, an estimated 11.8 million people aged 16 and over drove in the United States under the influence of drugs, including both illegal and misused prescription drugs (Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2017). Since 1991, the number of drivers killed in crashes involving opioids has increased seven fold (Columbia University, 2017). Without a legally mandated per se limit (such as the .08% BAC threshold for alcohol), it is a challenge for states to prove impairment in drugged driving cases. Per se limits for drugs do not exist in Texas primarily because of the uncertainly over what level of drugs in one’s system constitutes intoxication. Texas courts thus rely on expert testimony over toxicology lab results, which is far more complicated and uncertain than the proven per se alcohol limit. To compound the problem, toxicology labs are having trouble keeping up with the massive demand for tests. Also, with new types of legal and illegal drugs cropping up on a seemingly daily basis, it is difficult for labs to constantly formulate new tests for new drugs. Given all the issues associated with drugged driving, it is crucial that courts of all levels have a firm grasp on the legal issue involved.
Every two years, the Texas Legislature considers new laws aimed at fixing Texas’ impaired driving problem. In 2017, a handful of bills passed that arguably render the consequences of impaired driving less severe. For example, House Bill 2059 creates a statutory method for minors arrested for driving under the influence to have their arrest and prosecutorial records expunged. Municipal courts in Texas must stay apprised of new laws and all their particularities. This is a significant undertaking that requires constant continuing education to avoid misinterpretations and misunderstandings. The Texas Municipal Courts Education Center (TMCEC), through its Municipal Traffic Safety Initiatives (MTSI) grant, seeks to give municipal judges, clerks, prosecutors, and other court staff a thorough understanding of Texas laws and procedures so as to effectively adjudicate impaired driving cases and issue blood search warrants. The importance of this cannot be understated as 1,059 minor driving under the influence of alcohol cases were filed in Texas municipal courts in FY16 (Annual Statistical Reporting of the Texas Judiciary, FY16). Also in FY16, Texas municipal judges serving as magistrates issued 43,115 arrest warrants in Class A and B misdemeanors, which DWI offenses are usually charged as (Annual Statistical Reporting of the Texas Judiciary, FY16).
For more information contact TMCEC at 800.252.3718
A project of the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center
in cooperation with the Texas Department of Transportation