Dallas DWI defense lawyer John Helms discusses Tiger Woods’ arrest and how to defend against DWI charges, which may apply even when no alcohol is involved.
Tiger Woods was recently arrested in Florida for what Florida law calls Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”). In Texas, we call this driving while intoxicated (“DWI”). Texas has a crime called DUI, but it applies to people under the legal drinking age who have a “detectable amount” of alcohol in their system, even if they are not intoxicated.
Mr. Woods was found asleep in his car with the engine running. When police officers woke him up, he said some incoherent things and apparently failed some field sobriety tests. He gave a breath sample that showed he had no alcohol in his system. He made a public statement blaming his condition on a combination of prescription medication. What does all this mean about whether he was guilty of DWI or DUI?
First, the fact that he was not actually driving his car when the police found him does not matter. DWI and DUI laws usually refer to “operating” a motor vehicle, and “operating” is usually defined as being in control of a running motor vehicle. Because the car was running, and Mr. Woods was alone in the car and at the wheel, he is considered to be in control of it. If the car had not been running, but Mr. Woods was alone, asleep, and intoxicated and in the driver’s seat, he could still be arrested for DWI or DUI, but at trial, the State would have to prove that he drove the car to wherever he was found and that he was intoxicated at the time he was driving the car.
Second, the fact that Mr. Woods had no alcohol in his system does not mean he is not guilty. DWI and DUI laws usually do not require that the intoxication must be due to alcohol. In Texas, for example, “intoxication” is defined as the loss of a person’s normal physical or mental capabilities because of ingestion of alcohol or other substances, or a combination of alcohol and other substances, OR a blood/alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or more. So, in Texas, it is possible to be intoxicated even if you have no alcohol in your system. The key is that the person must have lost their normal physical or mental capacity. After all, the point of DWI and DUI laws are to protect the public by preventing people from driving who are not able to drive safely. Someone who has taken something other than alcohol can be just as dangerous a driver as someone who is drunk.
The fact that Mr. Woods was incoherent and failed field sobriety tests is strong evidence that he was intoxicated. If the case goes to trial, a jury would be able to watch a videotape of Mr. Woods talking and doing the field sobriety tests, so they would be asked to decide if the video shows that he had lost his normal physical or mental capacity. Slurred or incoherent speech and poor balance can be enough.
Mr. Woods put out a statement that the cause of his condition was a combination of prescription drugs that had an unexpected effect on him. Strictly speaking, that is not a legal defense. DWI and DUI laws do not require that a person has to try to become intoxicated or want to be intoxicated. They just require that the person be intoxicated. So, why would Mr. Woods put out a statement like this?
Mr. Woods is, of course, a public figure who wants to protect his public image as much as possible. In effect, he is saying that he is less blameworthy if his intoxication was unintentional than if he was drinking because he wanted to feel the effect of alcohol. In other words, he seems to be saying, “It’s not like I was out partying and was irresponsible and started driving.”
But could his defense that he was the victim of a combination of medications really help his case? If he is correct that the combination of medications caused him to be intoxicated unexpectedly, a prosecutor might be willing to reduce the charge to something like obstruction of a roadway.
A prosecutor is not simply going to accept his explanation, though. If there was no blood test to show what was really in his system, a prosecutor is going to want to know exactly what he claims to have taken, and a prosecutor will ask medical or pharmaceutical experts whether the combination he claims could really produce his condition. A prosecutor would also probably want to get prescription records to see whether he was really taking what he claims and in the quantity he claims, and whether he had been taking the medications before, so that he would know how they would affect him.
If I were defending Mr. Woods, I would consult with a medical or pharmaceutical expert as soon as possible to make sure that what Mr. Woods claims to have been the cause of his condition was really capable of producing it. If it was not, I would not use it as a defense, because if a prosecutor, a judge, or a jury is convinced that a person is both guilty and lying to try to get out of what they did, the person will end up worse off.
Being a criminal defense lawyer does not mean that you accept whatever your client says. All experienced DWI defense lawyers know that their clients will ultimately be worse off if their defense turns out to be a lie.
As a former federal prosecutor, I know that it is invaluable to be able to think like a prosecutor in order to test what a client is telling you. Clients may not like it at first, because no one likes to be challenged, but most ultimately understand that it is in their best interest. For Mr. Woods’ sake, I hope the DUI defense lawyer he hires will approach his case this way. Otherwise, the result in his case could be a bad one, both in terms of any punishment and in terms of publicity.
If you or a loved one have been charged with DWI in the Dallas area, you should strongly consider hiring someone who really knows the ins and outs of the law. Contact DWI defense attorney John Helms at (214) 666-8010 or fill out the online contact form. You can discuss your case, how the law may apply and your best legal options to protect your rights and freedom.