Laws are not always precise in their wording. For example, in Texas a first-time DWI charge may be prosecuted as either a Class B or Class A misdemeanor. Section 49.04 explains both charges. With respect to the Class B misdemeanor, the statue requires that if the defendant is convicted, they must serve a “minimum term of confinement of 72 hours.” By law, the maximum penalty for a Class B misdemeanor cannot exceed a $2,000 fine, up to 180 days in jail, or both.
A Class A misdemeanor conviction carries essentially double the maximum sentence of a Class B misdemeanor: a fine of up to $4,000, up to one year in jail, or both. Curiously, Section 49.04 does not specify any minimum jail time for a Class A DWI conviction, as it does for its Class B counterpart.
This begs the question: Could a jury theoretically find a defendant guilty of a Class A DWI, yet impose a sentence of no jail time and no fine? The Texas Second District Court of Appeals recently addressed this hypothetical scenario. The defendant in this case, Torres v. State, wanted to argue at trial that the jury could sentence him to pay a $1 fine with no jail time on a Class A DWI charge. The trial court refused to allow that argument. Although the Second District said the defendant failed to properly preserve his objection for appellate review, it nevertheless commented on “what constitutes a minimum sentence” in a DWI case.
Although Section 49.04 does not specify any minimum sentence for the Class A charge, the Second District explained that “assessing neither a fine nor a term of confinement is not within the statutory range and results in a void sentence.” For example, the Second District cited a 2017 decision from the Texas First District Court of Appeals in Houston, Ex Parte Rogers, where a jury convicted a defendant of Class B misdemeanor drug possession but sentenced him to “no fine and no jail time.”
The First District said the trial judge properly ordered a new trial on sentencing, as the jury’s verdict was effectively illegal. When a statute requires a sentence of jail time, a fine, or both, the jury must pick at least one of those options.
To put it another way, even when Texas law specifies no precise minimum sentence–as the Class A DWI misdemeanor law does–the minimum cannot be nothing.
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Oddly enough, this means that in theory, a person can receive one day in jail for a Class A misdemeanor DWI, yet another person facing the lesser Class B charge would face a statutory minimum of three days.
Of course, the prospect of any time in jail should be concerning. That’s why if you’re facing any type of DWI charge, you need to work with an experienced criminal justice attorney who will zealously represent your interests. For immediate help, contact Houston DWI Lawyer Tad A. Nelson at 713-489-7373.