Deferred Adjudication for First-Time Drunk Drivers in Texas?

First-time drunk drivers could get a break in Texas. That’s because groups historically at odds with each other are supporting new legislation that would allow deferred adjudication to first-time offenders.

Local prosecutors, defense attorneys and anti-drinking groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), have formed a loose-knit coalition that supports changes in the law that would encourage education over jail time for first-time offenders.

Texas tried the educational route back in the 1980s, but MADD and other groups lobbied against it, seeking straight prison time instead. However, the sheer number of arrests, the growing backlog of cases awaiting resolution, and the financial burden on the court system has led to discussion about alternative ways to deal with the 122,000 misdemeanor DWI cases currently pending in state courts.

One of the alternatives being discussed, deferred adjudication, would provide first-time drunk drivers the opportunity to plead guilty and enroll in an education component that, when completed, would allow them to walk away from imprisonment or fines. However, a repeat arrest could lead to enhanced sentencing that would include increased jail time.

In supporting the movement, one Tarrant County prosecutor noted, “It would give people who want to take responsibility an incentive to plead guilty, as opposed to setting these cases for trial. We have too many cases on the docket.”

Critics argue that under deferred adjudication repeat DWI offenders would get a break since their initial arrests would essentially be expunged, allowing them a clean slate. But deferred adjudication would not be a “free DWI,” according to the county prosecutor. It would be more like a type of probation. “If they don’t reoffend,” said the county prosecutor, “they can say they have not been convicted. But if they do reoffend, it can be used to enhance their punishment.”

Harris County has already implemented a program that provides similar results to a deferred adjudication; they call it the DIVERT program. The DIVERT program, although technically a pre-trial diversion and not an adjudication, allows defendants without any prior criminal history to get a second chance and avoid a conviction.