In Texas, an intoxicated person who operates a vehicle and causes the death of someone else commits the offense of "intoxication manslaughter." Other states may place this crime under their manslaughter or vehicular manslaughter laws. This article will review the Texas law and the penalties for intoxication manslaughter.
A person who does the following commits intoxication manslaughter:
Intoxication manslaughter crimes apply when a person is driving a car while intoxicated. These laws also apply to situations where an intoxicated person operates an airplane or boat, or even a carnival or amusement ride. For example, the Texas law specifically provides that if an intoxicated person operates or assembles an amusement park ride that results in someone's death, that person has committed intoxication manslaughter.
Intoxication manslaughter crimes apply when a person kills someone else as a result of a voluntary state of intoxication. This means that, if a person knowingly gets drunk, high, or otherwise becomes intoxicated and then gets behind the wheel and kills someone, that person has committed intoxication manslaughter.
It doesn't matter if the person didn't know or feel like they were intoxicated. For example, if someone is driving with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, they are legally intoxicated even if they feel normal and don't appear to be impaired. If, on the other hand, a person is unknowingly given a drug that results in intoxication, they are not culpable for a resulting death.
Alcohol and illegal drugs are the most common causes of intoxication, but it can also result from taking prescription medications or a combination of substances. Intoxication is measured in a variety of ways, including through the use of field sobriety tests, blood alcohol tests, and drug tests.
An intoxication manslaughter charge typically results when a person drinks, gets behind the wheel, and causes a crash that kills someone. The person killed can be a passenger in the driver's vehicle, the occupant of another car, or a pedestrian or bystander. The death does not have to happen immediately and can result from injuries caused by the crash.
To be convicted, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant's intoxication—and not some other factor—caused the victim's death. For instance, if the driver swerved to avoid crashing into a car driving in the wrong lane, a jury might conclude that the wrong-way driver caused the victim's death, not the defendant's intoxication.
(Tex. Penal Code § 49.08 (2022).)
The taking of another person's life is the most serious crime recognized under the law. Even though manslaughter is not considered as serious as murder, it is a crime that has severe penalties associated with it.
Texas makes intoxication manslaughter a second-degree felony, which carries 2 to 20 years' imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000. Enhanced penalties apply if the victim was a police officer, firefighter, judge, or emergency medical personnel engaged in official duties. For instance, a person who drives while intoxicated and hits and kills a police officer who's issuing a ticket on the side of the road will face a first-degree felony conviction. First-degree felonies carry penalties of 5 years to life in prison.
First- and second-degree felonies are serious offenses in Texas. It's likely a convicted defendant will face some prison or jail time, especially if this isn't their first impaired driving offense.
Texas prohibits judges from deferring adjudication in intoxication manslaughter cases. Community supervision (similar to probation) may be an option. However, as a condition of community supervision, the defendant must serve at least 120 days behind bars and complete a mandatory educational program.
Judges can also impose a sentence that includes:
(Tex. Penal Code §§ 12.32, 12.33, 49.08, 49.09; Tex. Code Crim. Proc. arts. 42A.102, 42A.304, 42A.401, 42A.407, 42A.408 (2022).)
A person charged with intoxication manslaughter will likely face an uphill battle. This crime doesn't require a prosecutor to prove any type of intent to cause another's death or gross negligence on the defendant's part.
However, a prosecutor must establish that defendant was intoxicated and this intoxicated state caused the victim's death. A defense attorney might try to poke holes in the prosecution's case or seek reduced charges if questions exist regarding the validity of the toxicology reports or the manner in which they were conducted (such as an illegal search). The defense attorney could also argue that other factors contributed to the victim's death, such as poor weather or another driver's negligence or reckless conduct.
If you're facing intoxication manslaughter or related charges, talk to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. It's often best to seek out a local criminal defense lawyer who knows the ins and outs of Texas impaired driving laws and is familiar with local police, prosecutors, and judges.