DUI vs. DWI in Texas: What's the Difference?

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Some states refer to the crime of drunk or drugged driving as driving while intoxicated, or DWI. Others, like California, call the same crime driving under the influence, or DUI. In general, DWI and DUI are abbreviations for the same criminal driving offenses and are used as synonyms.

But that is not the case in Texas. Texas uses the term "driving under the influence" to identify a violation of the zero tolerance law that applies only to drivers under the age of 21. That means that in this state, DUI and DWI are not the same thing at all, although both involve drinking and driving.

Texas DWI Laws

Texas is one of the driving while intoxicated states. Texas Penal Code section 49.40 makes it illegal to drink or drug and drive, and it is entitled "Driving While Intoxicated," often abbreviated to DWI. The other DWI statutes set out two separate and independent ways that a driver can be charged with a DWI offense. The first is by driving while their faculties are impaired by the consumption of alcohol or drugs. There is no legal level of impairment for this kind of DWI charge. The only question is whether the driver's normal faculties were impaired by the substance.

The other situation in which a person can get a DWI in Texas is when they are driving with a 0.08 percent or higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC). This is called a "per se" DWI – per se means "in and of itself". That's because evidence of impairment is not necessary to convict someone of this type of DWI. In Texas, proof that a driver's chemical test showed a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is sufficient by itself to convict someone of driving while intoxicated.

A driver in Texas is deemed to consent to chemical testing by driving on Texas public roads. The test can be breath, blood or urine testing. That means that someone arrested for a DWI who refuses to take a test is breaking the law. This offense, called refusal, can result in additional fines and loss of license as administrative penalties. Repeat offenses can result in more severe penalties.

Consequences of DWIs in Texas

Like most states, Texas law assigns penalties for drunk driving based in part on the driver's prior driving record. That is, a second offense will result in higher penalties than a first offense. A third or subsequent offense results in greater penalties than a second offense.

For example, penalties for a first-time DWI in Texas is a Class B misdemeanor. A driver convicted of a first-offense DWI will be sentenced to at least three days in jail, but time in jail for the DWI can be up to 180 days. The driver can also be sanctioned with a fine of up to $2,000 and a license revocation of up to a year. For a second DWI arrest in Texas, a Class A misdemeanor, the penalties can increase significantly. The potential jail time for a DWI offender shoots up to a year, the possible fines rise to $4,000, and the driver's license suspension can be for up to two years.

A third DWI is a felony, the more serious type of crime in Texas. It is a third-degree felony. Penalties for a third DWI include two to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Subsequent DWIs are also felonies. Note that convictions for boating while intoxicated, flying an airplane while intoxicated and operating an amusement ride while intoxicated also count as priors for a Texas DWI conviction.

Driving Under the Influence in Texas

A mature driver can never get arrested for driving under the influence in Texas. That's because Texas uses the term driving under the influence, or DUI, to refer only to a violation of the zero tolerance law by underage drivers. That law applies solely to drivers who are minors, defined as people under the age of 21 years old. The zero tolerance law makes it an offense for a minor to drive a vehicle with any detectable amount of alcohol in their system.

The law is part of an expansive system of laws aimed at preventing minors from using alcohol. A person under the age of 21 cannot legally purchase, attempt to purchase, consume or even possess an alcoholic beverage without violating the law.

If a driver under 21 years of age is driving a motor vehicle, and tests show that they have any alcohol at all in their system, it is a criminal offense in Texas. That crime is called driving under the influence by a minor, or DUI by a minor. A violation can also be called a DUIA, which stands for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Texas DUI Enforcement Procedure

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, a DUI stop can happen like this: Law enforcement stops a car if they have reasonable suspicion that the minor driving the car is intoxicated. The police talk to the driver and may ask them to perform field sobriety tests. If the police think that the minor has consumed any alcohol at all, they arrest the minor and have the car towed. The minor is given a breathalyzer test or a blood test to detect alcohol in their system. If there is any detectable alcohol at all, the minor is guilty of a DUI charge.

Given that any amount of alcohol at all is sufficient for a DUI conviction, no evidence of driving impairment is necessary to convict. That means that it is easier for a prosecutor to get a DUI conviction for a minor than a DWI conviction for mature drivers.

Consequences of DUI in Texas

A DUI violation for a minor in Texas is a Class C misdemeanor. The primary penalty for this offense is license suspension. The person's license will be suspended for 60 days for the first offense, 120 days for a second offense and 180 days for any subsequent offense. This is an administrative penalty, not a criminal penalty. The young driver has the right to request a hearing before an administrative law judge if they believe they can disprove any element of the charge.

Note that minors are subject to the same implied consent laws that apply to mature drivers. If the young driver refuses to cooperate with chemical testing, their license is suspended for 180 days for a first refusal, two years for any subsequent refusal.

A judge may also require a minor convicted of a DUI to complete an alcohol education or substance abuse program. Failure to complete the program results in loss of the driver's license. The minor may also be fined up to $500 for a first offense and required to complete a set number of community service hours.

Consequences of Multiple DUI Convictions

What happens if a minor gets multiple DUI convictions? The driver can face more serious criminal charges with penalties up to 180 days in jail. The fines and the time required in mandatory drug or alcohol programs can also increase. Minors are also subject to DWI penalties if they are found to be driving with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher.