If you or someone you care about has been charged with drunk driving, we know you have a lot of questions. Most people have never been through the criminal process and thus have no idea what to expect when they appear in court. Each county has its own set of policies and procedures. Experienced DWI attorneys practice in the Harris County Courts on a daily basis. As a result, we have the knowledge to explain what to expect at each of your court appearances and effectively guide you through the Texas DWI process. The Texas DWI court process is summarized below.
Criminal Prosecution of Texas DWI
A first offense DWI in Texas is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by not less than 72 hours or more than 180 days in county jail, a fine not to exceed $2,000.00, or any combination of fine and jail time. The good news is that most DWI offenders never return to jail after their arrest. People convicted of DWI are typically sentenced to probation for a period of 12-24 months. No more jail time is imposed as long as the person complies with the terms and conditions of his or her probation.
Do not expect your DWI case to be resolved at your first court appearance. Before your case is resolved, you will most likely have several court appearances.
Your First Appearance in Court
The first time you are required to appear in court is referred to as a “First Appearance” setting. The first appearance date in Harris County is usually set 40 to 60 days after the date of your arrest. You will inform the court whether or not you have hired an attorney at your first appearance. If you have hired an attorney, he or she will discuss your case with the prosecutors. Your lawyer will then start the process of requesting copies of any police reports, witness statements, videos, and other evidence in the prosecutor’s possession. Following that, the court will assign you a new court date for your initial “announcement” setting. At the first appearance, you will NOT be required to enter a plea or set your case for trial. During the first appearance process in Texas, you will typically do nothing more than sit in the gallery of the court. NOTE: If you hire us, you will most likely not have to appear in court for any reason other than a plea or trial setting. We will deal with them on your behalf.
Announcement Setting (Usually two in Texas Courts)
The settings that appear immediately after your first appearance are known as “announcement” settings. The first announcement is usually scheduled 20 to 30 days after your first appearance. Typically, the second announcement setting occurs 20 to 30 days after the first announcement setting. The purpose of the announcement setting is exactly what it sounds like: to notify the court whether you are ready to enter a plea in your DWI case or to set your case for trial.
You will typically do nothing more than sit in the gallery of the court during the announcement settings, just as you did during your first appearance. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office provides these settings to citizens to allow attorneys time to obtain all discovery materials from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. The discovery materials include all of the police reports, witness statements, videos, and other evidence that your DWI defense attorney will typically request at your initial appearance. Because of the volume of criminal cases filed in Harris County each month, it usually takes some time for Harris County prosecutors to comply with discovery requests. As a result, Harris County Judges typically provide defendants with two announcement settings to ensure that citizens and their attorneys have enough time to receive and review all of the materials required to make an informed decision about whether to set a DWI case for a plea or a trial.
In addition to discovery materials, announcement settings enable your DWI defense attorney to review all documents in the court’s file for any procedural or evidentiary flaws that may warrant dismissal of your driving while intoxicated criminal case. The Texas courts will require you to set your case for a plea or a trial setting after your two announcement settings and after you have had an adequate opportunity to review all of the evidence in your DWI case.
Plea Bargain: A Guilty Plea
If you choose not to fight your case, you will enter into a plea bargain with the prosecution. However, before you enter a guilty plea, your attorney should carefully review your case to ensure that there are no legal flaws or factual issues with the prosecution’s case that could result in the charges being dropped. After your attorney has completed this process, he or she should explain the advantages and disadvantages of entering a guilty plea and putting your case on trial. Remember, an attorney cannot tell you whether or not to plead guilty or take your case to trial. This is a violation of professional ethics. A good lawyer will carefully explain your options to you so that you can make the best decision possible.
If you decide to enter a guilty plea, you will almost certainly face a fine, a jail sentence, and possibly probation. If you are offered probation, the typical terms and conditions include:
- testing for potential alcohol or drug problems
- completion of a 12 hour DWI Education program
- mandatory attendance at a 3 hour Victim Impact Panel conducted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving
- community service ranging from 24 to 100 hours.
If you are found guilty by the judge, a record of your conviction will be made and forwarded to the DPS. DPS will keep a record of your conviction and will also forward it to the Federal Bureau of Investigations so that you can be monitored locally and nationally. A DWI conviction will be on your record for the rest of your life. A DWI conviction cannot be expunged or made non-disclosed unless pardoned by the Governor or President.
ONLY THE PERSON ACCUSED has the authority to decide whether or not the case proceeds to trial. If you intend to take your case to trial, make certain that the attorney you hire has ACTUAL TRIAL EXPERIENCE IN DWI CASES. Even criminal defense attorneys do not all have extensive trial experience. Trial skills are difficult to master, and nothing beats firsthand experience when your future and freedom are at stake.
A good lawyer should provide you with a personal assessment of your case’s strengths and weaknesses. The attorney should explain both the legal (if any) and factual reasons why a judge or jury might find you not guilty. MOST IMPORTANTLY, an attorney should never make any promises about the outcome of your case. Trials can be won or lost for a variety of reasons, the majority of which are unpredictable. An attorney’s job is to collect all relevant evidence, properly evaluate your case, and then provide you with his or her professional opinion on the likely outcome. Once your attorney has provided you with this information, it is up to YOU to decide whether or not to proceed with the trial.
It is important to note that if you choose to go to trial in most DWI cases, your punishment will not be increased. In fact, if you are found guilty, judges and/or juries typically impose less punishment than the prosecution offers for a plea bargain. This is because, in the case of a trial, both the judge and the jury will be fully aware of the facts and circumstances surrounding your accusation. Except in limited circumstances, the facts of a plea bargain agreement are not disclosed.
Expunction of your Record
If you enter a guilty plea, your DWI conviction will remain on your record for the rest of your life. There is no 5-, 7-, or 20-year rule that allows a DWI conviction to be expunged from a person’s record. However, if the State dismisses your case or if you are found NOT GUILTY, you have the right to have the DWI arrest removed from your record. Filing an Expunction motion with the District Court, obtaining an expunction order from the court, and then sending the expunction order to local and federal law enforcement agencies to permanently erase all record of the DWI arrest from your record are all steps in the process of clearing your record.